How technology can aid seniors, caregivers in their own homes
BOSTON (MarketWatch) — Older Americans and their family caregivers are at long last warming to the notion of using technology to achieve their respective goals. Older Americans want to age in place and their family caregivers — be they long-distance or not — want some peace of mind that their adult parents and loved ones are safe.
The only problems? Family caregivers and the 65-plus generation think it’s costly to install and maintain what are now being referred to as “aging services” technologies. And awareness is low of such things as electronic pill dispensers, systems that monitor vital signs and sensors that detect whether an older American has fallen in their home or failed to turn off their stove.
But experts involved in two recent studies say the benefits of such technology far outweigh the costs and, in some cases, are much less expensive than skilled nursing homes and the like. And while awareness of these technologies is low, it is growing, albeit slowly.
“The greatest gain is that these technologies can prevent or eliminate early institutionalization,” said Majd Alwan, co-author of the Center for Aging Services Technologies’ “State of Technology in Aging Services” study, which was sponsored by the Blue Shield of California Foundation.
According to Alwan, the cost of aging-services technology might be a “couple hundred dollars” a month while the cost of a nursing home could be $6,000 a month. “It’s a great savings” when you examine it that way, he said. Read that study and related studies at this Web site.
And Linda Barrett, author of AARP’s “Healthy @ Home” study, reports that once caregivers and the 65-plus generation learn about such things as telemedicine they are willing to try them. “These technologies can help older adults stay independent longer and it can give caregivers a greater sense of freedom,” she said. Read the study.
So what are some of these existing and underdevelopment technologies that caregivers and the 65-plus set might consider? According to Alwan, the new aging-services technologies fall into one of three broad categories: safety/environment, health and wellness and social connectedness.
Alwan said falls are very common among seniors and often result in hospitalization or long-term care being required. The most popular of the safety technologies are those designed to detect or prevent falls, including user-activated push buttons on a pendant or wristband device and the “embedded- in-the-environment” devices.
The user-activated devices tend to be less expensive but “with these systems, some people fall and sustain an injury and might not be able to push the button,” Alwan said. Philips Life Line (www.LifelineSystems.com), Life Alert (www.lifealert.com), and Tunstall’s wearable fall detector (www.tunstall.co.uk) offer some of the products mentioned in the study.
The embedded-in-the-environment devices include those that detect floor vibrations, or motion, and images. “The advantage of these products over the ‘wearable’ type is that they don’t require the user to activate or wear it,” he said. For instance, the floor vibration systems can detect when a senior has fallen or if a senior hasn’t walked on the floor according to normal use patterns, he said.
Products mentioned in the study include the University of Virginia’s floor-vibrations-based fall detector (marc.med.virginia.edu/projects_gaitmonitoring.html), motion-based detectors offered by Independently’s QuietCare, (www.quietcaresystems.com), HealthSense (www.healthsense.com), and GrandCare (www.grandcare.com), and imaging-based systems offered by Simbad and the University of Missouri’s research effort (eldertech.missouri.edu/index.htm). Other devices mentioned include FallSaver (www.fallsaver.net) chair alarm.
According to Alwan’s study, these technologies are out-of-pocket expenses and not reimbursable through most health-care plans, though some may be covered under the All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) and Medicare Advantage for Special Needs Populations programs. He estimated that wearable devices cost about $35 a month, while the embedded technologies might cost $400 to $2,000 to install and $100 per month thereafter to monitor.
Health and wellness
No longer is it science fiction. Older Americans now can set up in their homes telemedicine and telehealth systems that can monitor glucose, blood pressure and send that information to a health-care provider.
“Providers can review those vital signs and implement, if need be, timely intervention,” Alwan said. In addition, he said there are now bed pads that can measure such things as sleep and restlessness. “Sleep disturbance is a sign of a slew of conditions, he said.
Manufacturers include Viterion (www.viterion.com), Honeywell HomMed (www.hommed.com), Philips (www.medical.philips.com/main/products/telemonitoring), WebVMC (www.webvmc.com), Vitel Care (www.vitelnet.com), and Health Buddy (www.healthhero.com).
According to Alwan, televisits that use two-way video are reimbursable, with limitations.
Other technologies include those that dispense medications. Manufacturers include MD2 (www.md2.com) and CompuMed (www.compumed.com). Those products may require a professional caregiver to perform the loading and programming, the study said. In addition, most medication-dispensing products have “usability/ user interface issues for elderly users.” Many products can be found on the Internet (e.g. on www.epill.com), the study noted.
There’s not much research that shows the cost effectiveness of technologies that connect seniors socially, but the anecdotal evidence is mounting. Seniors, despite the out-of-pocket expenses, are seemingly hooked on using Nintendo’s Wii, Dakim ( Web site), and It’s Never 2 late ( Web site) and talking to their grandchildren via cell phones and computers.
Alwan refers to social-connectedness games as “theurapeutainment.” “These games … can improve the cognitive and physical attributes of seniors,” he said. “They can change the socialization patterns. And it has a positive impact on the social and mental well-being of seniors.”
Manufacturers of senior-focused social connectedness technologies include the JitterBug Cell Phone (www.JitterBug.com), Celery (www.mycelery.com) and Motorola’s Ojo Video Phone (www.motorola.com/ojo).
There are some acceptance and usability issues. In addition, cost can be a factor too. For instance, few insurers might reimburse such expenses. What’s more, these technologies need to demonstrate their value proposition, he said. But in the meanwhile, what harm could a few rounds of boxing on Wii cause?
Robert Powell has been a journalist covering personal finance issues for more than 20 years, writing and editing for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and Mutual Fund Market News.