Above: Aging in place is easier and safer than ever, thanks to computers, tech devices and apps that allow families to stay connected.
As our population ages and more people prefer to remain in their homes for as long as possible, technology continues to offer more solutions to aid their safety and the peace of mind of family and friends. Combinations of devices, new applications and the internet make it possible to tailor a tech system for just about any personal need.
The possibilities are overwhelming, but we hope we can help you make sense of what’s there and point you in the right direction to find solutions to today’s needs and pathways to future needs. It’s always good to keep in mind that people and technology are works in progress. Additionally, when you start to research any topic or technology, you’ll wind up going off in many directions as you dig deeper. It’s a fact of online life.
Among our customer base, we’re increasingly seeing families trying to cope with dementia and aging in place. It’s spurred research on our part to see how we can combine hardware—anything from smart speakers and in-home cameras to cellphones—with software that works in the home or community to serve the special needs of special people in their lives.
The beautiful thing about smart speakers, camera systems, wi-fi networks and cellphones is that they’re ubiquitous. Hardly anybody doesn’t have all of them in their homes or as part of their lives, and that takes away a lot the mystery.
Smart speakers and the companies who power them have all tied in with devices that work on voice activation and an internet connection to a wi-fi network to do just about anything in a home. They allow you to use voice commands in many cases, such as for turning lights on or off and even doing the same with a TV, or setting the room temperature or locking and unlocking doors through a cellphone app.
Your first assistant is likely to be the one that came with your phone, tablet or computer, such as Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana or Samsung’s Bixby. But it could also be tied with Amazon’s Echo system, which you likely know as Alexa.
The only caution is that you probably shouldn’t mix and match the various services. Picking one and sticking to it will help you and anyone who uses the service tie together all the capabilities you’ll use. If your assistant isn’t already on, you’ll need to enable it in the device settings and recite some specific phrases, so the software learns your voice.
The most complicated part of the experience likely will be setting up each device to work as needed to meet your specific needs. You’ll need an app that’s compatible with your speaker and device (phone, tablet, etc.), and to be most effective several people may need to have access to your system. For example, this could be everyone living in your home or children or friends who look in on you on a regular basis.
Because your system will likely have access from several people, the most important step in the setup process will be privacy settings. Make sure the wi-fi network and each device has a strong, unique password to deter intruders. Then, decide the tasks you want the system to handle. If you’re not sure what the smart speaker can do, ask it. If you’re setting up the system through a smartphone or computer, you may be able to see a list of capabilities. Learn the commands for your specific system that can be most helpful. Start with simple, necessary commands and then increase them as needed or desired.
Like all software platforms, all of the assistants that run through smart speakers work with third-party apps, often referred to as “skills,” “actions” or “capsules.” These apps greatly expand your assistant’s power, so you can do things like ordering a pizza. More important, however, is you can use them as voice-activated intercoms, enabling you to call for help inside or outside your home or simply have a conversation with a family member or friend without the need to dial or pick up a phone.
Last but not least, you may also be able to access your network and all of its devices through a “wearable,” such as a smart watch (Yes, Dick Tracy lives!) or a pendant that goes around your neck. The hearing technology market made big news at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, including AI-enabled hearing aids with fall detection, better and adjustable noise. They will add integration with the assistants and eventually work with the expected over-the-counter hearing aids to benefit seniors with mild-to-moderate hearing loss.
This is where you can start to connect your system to a growing number of applications that help you and your caregivers – if you’re at that point – or family members help you with everyday life.
The chances are good that seniors with limited mobility, sight and hearing issues as well as those with early stages of dementia can remain safely at home—and even live alone with the benefits of technology. Available apps can help with reminders to take medications and can help with making appointments with various healthcare providers and, possibly, with transportation providers.
In a home, you can install motion sensors or a smart doorbell to know when someone is out of bed or near the door. If a senior is still driving, a smart phone app for turn-by-turn directions can be really helpful on both a mobile phone and a wearable. For seniors living alone or those with early stages of dementia, you can use smart speakers to play music at scheduled times or use storytelling technology to help their loved one talk about themselves and their lives, which can be a comfort.
When dementia reaches the point where you’re concerned about a loved one getting lost, wearables with location tracking may help keep their loved one safe and reduce worry about getting lost near their home. There are also apps that enable a person to “check in” when they arrive at a destination. Most of these apps work best through cellphones, but they should have versions for wearables soon if they’re not already available.
You can address home safety with apps such as an automatic stove shutoff and a home alarm system with water detection for faucets that may be left running. From a health standpoint, it may make sense to have a medication reminder/dispensing system that both alerts about a dosage and only alerts/releases the appropriate medication at the right time.
At this point, and as dementia or personal care needs become more extensive, you might need an in-home care worker while you are out or at work or a round-the-clock caregiver. As they help with meals, showers, dressing and other routines, a network of remote cameras and communication through a network of smart speakers may help provide you with peace of mind and the ability to communicate more quickly and effectively during an emergency.
The key takeaway is that any technology that uses the internet can become a collaborative technology that improves the quality of life and enhances care and emergency response. Further developments in hardware and software, including more extensive use of artificial intelligence (AI), will provide more capabilities.
You can find an extensive list of technology for dementia-related resources in this blog post from Aging In Place Technology Watch.
The Digital Device Doctor cures digital anxiety for seniors and home/home-office users. A graduate of Harvard Business School, “Doctor Gene” spent more than 30 years in international business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.