From voice-activated home alarms to smartwatches with blood sugar monitors, learn how you can age at home with the help of technology.
Whatever your age, technology can sometimes be intimidating or stressful. But it also can offer peace of mind, security and connection. As you age, technology can be the difference between aging in place and moving to a care home. It can even save a life.
Choosing the right tools, however, can seem daunting initially.
“The more important way to look at it is: what condition or disease or issue are you trying to address? And can technology help with that?" says Michael Nicin, executive director of the National Institute on Ageing (NIA). “You should always have a conversation with your doctor first. They might also be able to help or have some insight on the technologies."
Discussions with loved ones also may be useful in determining what's practical and doable. It's also good practice to not make decisions based on age. Someone might have dementia, but is physically quite healthy. Alternatively, someone may be cognitively healthy, but have mobility issues that require closer management.
“A 60-year-old could have full onset dementia and a 90-year-old could be fully cognitively and physically intact," says Alex Mihailidis, a professor and biomedical engineer at the University of Toronto.
Smartwatches to keep tabs on your health
For those who lead active lives, there are off-the-shelf products to help track activity levels and vitals, as well as more-specialized technologies to track specific health issues, such as continuous blood and sugar monitors for diabetics.
Some of the latest smartwatch models, for example, have improved sensor technologies that can track a person's heart rate even if they have atrial fibrillation, triggering alerts when the heart rate falls or rises beyond a certain level. There are also smartwatches specifically designed to measure blood pressure, though some experts say more research is needed to gauge the accuracy of these devices. And, new apps are available for smartwatches that can measure tremors for movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease.
“In some ways, technology has really helped people harness that monitoring for themselves," says Nicin, stressing these technologies are not a replacement for professional care, monitoring, guidance or treatment.
“[It's a] low hanging fruit in the best possible way. These tend to be relatively affordable technologies for the average person."
Even games or virtual-reality exercise programs can be useful and help motivate seniors to become more physically active with research showing positive outcomes for older people, according to Mihailidis.
Practical mobile phones
For some of us, perhaps the more complicated smartwatches and mobile phones aren't the best choice. Instead, basic cell phones designed with special features, such as large, analog push buttons instead of a touch screen, may be a more suitable option. Some models come with an SOS button and clearly marked presets that can be used to quickly dial caregivers and doctors. These phones are also affordable—typically priced at $100 or less.
“It's something that shouldn't be discounted because it's cheap. It's readily available, and it sort of cuts through a lot of the complexity that modern technology has," says Nicin.
Another affordable tool is the LivingWell Companion, a personal emergency response service from Telus Health. It provides access to emergency support 24/7 with the push of a button and comes with optional fall detection. It also comes with its own GPS function and can be used as an in-home or mobile device.
"Many of us have loved ones who we care about and want to see live healthy, long, independent lives with dignity and with peace of mind when it comes to their security," says Juggy Sihota, vice-president of consumer health at Telus. The company, which has a partnership with the NIA, says more than 22 million Canadians are covered by their healthcare services.
"We want to help educate and empower aging Canadians and their loved ones on how Personal Emergency Response Systems, like LivingWell Companion, support aging in place."
Making your home smarter
Setting up a smart-home system can take an initial investment of time and money—depending on how “smart" you wish to make it. It can be as basic and affordable as having motion sensors installed so lights automatically turn on when someone enters a room. Or it can be more sophisticated with Wi-Fi-enabled light switches, doorbells with cameras, smart thermostats, door locks and cameras. All these devices can then be controlled through a central smart-home system, mobile-phone app or both.
These systems also respond to voice commands—allowing you to make a phone call or turn the lights on and off, for example—and alert you if there's someone at the door. Reminders can also be set up to help manage medication or prompts for other tasks requiring a sequence of steps.
“We want to make sure older adults are still capable of living on their own and taking care of themselves, even if a few things are slipping around the edges. That's where the use of existing technology could be increased at the adoption level," says Mihailidis, who's also scientific director of AGE-WELL NCE
Caregivers who don't live in the same home can be granted access so that they, too, can monitor or even help remotely.
Cameras can also be set up inside the home so a caregiver can check in if no movement has been detected for a certain period of time. However, it's important to have these discussions with the parties involved, experts say, to help them understand the context.
Coordinating care with technology
For caregivers and loved ones, there are also a growing number of app-based technologies that can help families coordinate finances among themselves. Even if there's a power of attorney, some families may wish to share responsibilities for paying the bills or coordinate who's responsible for a particular area of care. These apps can centralize tasks, help families set or change budgets together and plan care schedules.
“It's like being able to be in the same room if you live across the country from each other," says Nicin.
One Canadian success story has been doing this kind of coordination on a large scale for long-term care facilities across Canada and the United States. PointClickCare, a cloud-based health care software provider, serves nearly 70 percent of skilled nursing facilities in the U.S. and is the predominant player in every province in Canada, except Quebec. The company is also connected to more than 3,000 hospitals and every major health plan in the U.S.
“Our mission is making sure we can serve seniors and vulnerable populations along their health-care journey," says B.J. Boyle, PointClickCare's senior vice president of product management.
While the company's software allows care facilities to access a patient's medical history, it wants to use machine learning to leverage the data so potential health concerns can be flagged early.
“We need to evolve from a system of record—which is, we collect all this information and we can find it when we need it—to a system of intelligence."
While it's currently focused more on health-care facilities, Boyle says there's interest in eventually being able to serve users at home, too. PointClickCare is exploring partnerships with companies that make specialized devices to track an individual's health.
Using technology to support your overall care plan
Not everyone has a regular family doctor or other health-care professional they can turn to, especially those who live in remote areas with limited resources. The Telus Health MyCare app, for example, bridges that gap, giving Canadians one-on-one multilingual access to locally-licensed doctors, professional mental health counsellors, registered dietitians and other health professionals.
The service provides citizens "with safe, quality access to primary care, prescriptions and referrals without leaving the comfort of home," according to Sihota.
"We believe that technological innovations have their place within our public health system and we strive to work closely with provincial governments, health authorities and key stakeholders to ensure our technologies work as a complement to existing healthcare services."
Having someone who can maintain the devices is also important, and one of the target areas of eldercare research is on making the learning curve more accessible. Experts say there is no shortage of people who can teach these things to seniors, but a lack of funding, programming and leadership has been a hurdle.
Providing support and educational opportunities can go a long way in supporting the adoption of new technologies.
“I think the important thing to know when we consider these kinds of technologies is that they're not silver bullets," says Nicin, but they can help in between visits with health-care professionals. “Technologies can be helpful on a day-to-day basis."
This article was published by RBC Wealth Management and can be retrieved here. In Quebec, financial planning services are provided by RBC Wealth Management Financial Services Inc. which is licensed as a financial services firm in that province. In the rest of Canada, financial planning services are available through RBC Dominion Securities Inc.