A version of this article originally appeared in OUR HOMES Winter 2018-2019.
Tools of the digital age may enhance and prolong independent living for Canadians as they age.
OUR HOMES consulted with Heather Mahon of Heather’s Home Healthcare, a medical equipment and supplies store in Bracebridge that promotes independent living, and Sarah Love and her husband Stewart of PM WYRE, a Burlington company that automates homes and cottages.
Simple training in using computers, smartphones and tablets is available through local libraries, recreation departments or seniors organizations.
Here is a round-up of technology that can be used to make tasks easier, faster or safer for seniors who want to age at home:
1. A cell phone or a portable phone, which most Canadian seniors already own, when taken into the bathroom during showers or baths, is a simple safety measure. “If you fall, you can call 911,” says Heather.
2. When travelling to see family and friends gets too difficult due to inclement weather, distance or mobility issues, people can keep in touch through email, text messages or live video links on smartphones or tablets with free apps such as FaceTime or Skype.
3. Medical alert services are easy to use and often the first aging-at-home improvement introduced to a home. They typically provide clients with a small help button that can be worn as a pendant around the neck or on the wrist. Someone in need of help can simply push the button to reach a monitoring service. Some systems have the ability to detect falls. With the home phone turned into a speaker phone, the monitoring centre can call the customer. “If they don’t respond, they’re going to call an ambulance,” says Heather. Monitoring is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “They don’t care how often you press that button. They’re there,” she says.
4. With voice commands, mobile digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon Echo’s Alexa can be used to find out the weather or traffic conditions, to send an email, make a phone call and more.
5. People with complex medical conditions that require multiple medications can take advantage of new technologies that help ensure they take their pills as prescribed. For example, a heart transplant recipient who takes more than two dozen pills every day can uses an app for tablets or smartphones called Medisafe to remind him what pill he should take, at what time and whether he should take it with food or water. The application can be programmed to alert a designated relative or caregiver if someone has forgotten to take medication.
Spencer Heath Solutions has taken a step further and developed a medication dispenser. About the size of a toaster, it can be placed on a kitchen counter. It doles out pre-packaged doses of the right medication at the right time, as prescribed. It alerts users when its time to take medicine and can remind them when they’ve forgotten. The device can also alert caregivers and pharmacists when someone has missed taking medication.
6. Cameras can help people to see outside or inside the home. Doorbells can be equipped with a doorbell camera to show, on the home television or a computer screen, who’s at the door. “The client will hit it and see if they want to get up and answer the door,” Sarah says. Or, if homeowners want family to be able to visually check on them, cameras can be installed inside the home and connected to family via smartphone or computer.
7. Routine maintenance aspects of a home can be automated, such as sensors that detect whether water is leaking into a basement or if a sump pump is working.
8. Heating and lighting can be automated to turn on and off when homeowners want. Light pathways and occupancy sensors can be installed in a senior's home. "For example, if they frequently get up and use the bathroom, we can do a pathway of light that’s set on a dimmer at 10 per cent or 20 per cent that’s on at night from their bedroom to the bathroom. And when they get to the bathroom, we can put in an occupancy sensor in the bathroom so the light goes on. When they leave, it automatically goes off,” says Sarah.
9. In bedrooms or other rooms, window shades can be automated to rise in the morning and descend in the evening, so homeowners aren’t struggling to get behind furniture to open and close shades, Sarah explains.
10. A whole home automation system can be programmed so when homeowners leave, they can press one button and the security system engages, shades descend and lights adjust to leave on only those that are necessary, describes Sarah. When owners come home and punch in their key code on the door or their smartphone, the security system automatically disarms and lights come on at appropriate settings and locations. The door code can even turn on their favourite music or radio station.