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January 4, 2010

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High-tech aids for seniors at home

PENDANTS with emergency buttons, home sensors and assorted technology are helping senior citizens remain in their homes and retain their privacy while giving care givers more peace of mind. Melissa Kossler Dutton reports.

At 88, Grif Crawford knows he's at risk of a fall or other sudden health problems. So he wears a pendant around his neck that can summon help if something goes wrong.

"It's kind of like life insurance," says Crawford, of Lee Summit, in the US state of Missouri. "I feel very comforted with this."

The device has come a long way since the days when it merely allowed the wearer to alert someone that he or she had fallen and couldn't get up. Crawford's equipment also can be programed to answer his phone, remind him to take his medicine or alert him to a fire, among other things.

It's one of several new products designed to help seniors stay in their homes rather than move to a nursing home or assisted-living facility.

At-home technology now can monitor senior citizens' movements, vital statistics, and sleep and bathroom patterns. There are products that remind seniors to take their medicine.

Such devices allow older people to remain in their homes with more oversight from loved ones or medical specialists.

The products can monitor how well seniors are managing the chores of daily living, and offer peace of mind to care givers or family, says Majd Alwan, director of the Center of Aging Services Technology, in Washington, DC.

The products are most successful when they are linked to an agency that can dispatch meals, medical help or other senior services, he says.

Currently, the monitoring systems, which cost around US$150 to US$200 a month, are more often prescribed to seniors for a limited time after a hospitalization or health issue, Alwan says. Some also are being used in assisted living facilities where operators like the additional protections they offer.

But many people would like to see the technology become more mainstream, says Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities for AARP, which recently surveyed seniors about the products. Seniors are willing to use the technology if it's affordable, she says.

"We're at the beginning of the wave," she says. "Money is an issue."

Alwan foresees technology allowing seniors to avoid "unnecessary early institutionalization" because it will relieve the anxiety of loved ones. The ability to closely monitor a person's lifestyle also can help family members know when the older person is unable to remain home, says Katie Boyer, director of marketing for Home for Life Solutions, in Lee Summit.

Besides monitoring falls and day-to-day activities, her company sells equipment that will turn off a stove if the user forgets. A built-in motion detector turns the appliance off if the user leaves the room and does not return in a specific time frame.

As for managing medicine, systems exist that will dispense it at appropriate times and remind patients to take it. If the patient fails to take the medicine, the pills can move into a locked chamber to avoid an overdose.

Many older people like having technology provide this extra layer of security because it doesn't require them to give up privacy, says Agnes Berzsenyi, general manager of home health for GE Healthcare in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

GE has two products aimed at seniors: Health Guide allows users to check their blood pressure, sugar levels or heart rate daily. The information is sent to a medical provider who tracks it. If problems arise, the patient can have a teleconference with a nurse or schedule an appointment with their doctor.

The company also offers QuietCare, which uses sensors that learn a customer's daily activities and behaviors, and then watch for changes, Berzsenyi explains. The sensors will alert help if a person falls, goes to the bathroom at night and doesn't return to bed, or fails to get out of bed in the morning. Sensors also can be placed near the medicine cabinet or refrigerator, so monitors can track whether the person is taking their medicine and eating.

"It makes them feel like someone's taking care of them but no one is watching them," Berzsenyi says.

John Cobb, CEO of Senior Lifestyle Corp, started to install QuietCare in some of his company's 70 senior living facilities this summer because he thought it would make residents safer. With QuietCare, his staff can keep track of residents' whereabouts at night, he says.

"This is not a nursing home," Cobb says from his company's Chicago headquarters. "We're not watching people at night."

Within 30 days, the system alerted staff members to five residents who had problems overnight, he says, adding: "That was a very telling moment."


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