EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the May 2008 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.
Alisa Washington and her husband, Damon, love to travel, but being away from home creates stress for the Raleigh, N.C., couple. It means leaving Washington's father, John Fowlkes, 86, who lives close by in a senior apartment building. "I worry about him because he did have a couple of falls," she says. If her father fell again, she says, he could be down "for any number of hours, or even a day or two."
So a year ago, Washington decided to try QuietCare, an in-home monitoring system that uses motion sensors to track Fowlkes' daily activities. The service sends her e-mails with status reports on his movements throughout the day.
When the service senses that something's amiss -- perhaps no movement during the day -- it tries to reach someone on a list of emergency contacts, including relatives, friends and neighbors. If nobody is available, it will alert an emergency dispatcher. "The main benefit is peace of mind," says Washington. "We were in Europe last summer, and I could still monitor him because I get e-mails regularly."
Despite some initial hesitation about the intrusiveness of the system, her father doesn't mind being monitored. "I thought it would make some noise or something, but the [sensor] lights just blink -- that's it," Fowlkes says. Once a month, he tests the system by pushing a red button on the QuietCare console, which sits on his kitchen table. QuietCare (www.quietcare.com; 877-822-2468) was developed by New York City–based Living Independently Group.
Many experts in aging say that monitoring systems benefit the elderly as well as their adult children. The systems can reduce the "strain and burden of the informal caregiver or adult child," says Majd Alwan, director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST), in Washington, D.C. The center is an international coalition of technology companies, aging-services groups and university researchers that develop high-tech products for seniors. As for seniors, he says, "They can stay in their homes longer and have a dignified aging experience."
Tracking Mom's Daily Activities
Several companies offer monitoring systems, and they all work pretty much the same way. Setup is similar to that of a home-alarm system. A professional installer mounts wireless sensors around the senior's home, usually in or near the bathroom, bedroom, front door, kitchen and other high-traffic areas.
Most sensors detect motion, such as movement in the bathroom or hall. A senior's daily routine is determined during setup, and this information is used to detect possible problems. Besides the basic movement sensor, you can sign up for a contact sensor, which knows when a door on a medicine cabinet, refrigerator or room opens and closes. This indicates whether the senior is taking medication or eating on a regular basis. A pressure-pad sensor for the bed can tell when someone is resting; if a senior is in bed longer than usual, he or she could be ill.
The sensors route their data by radio signal to an in-home base station -- similar to a home-alarm console -- which sends the information to a monitoring service. One or more caregivers, such as a grown child, neighbor or friend, or a nurse in an assisted-living facility, can receive regular updates on the senior's activities by e-mail, text message or logging in to the company's password-protected Web site.
Installation can run from $200 to more than $1,000, depending on the complexity of the system. Monthly monitoring fees range from $40 to $90.
John Nevin lives in Lansing, Mich., a nine-hour drive from his 70-year-old mother in Rhinelander, Wis. "My dad passed away last summer, and she's not used to doing stuff by herself," says Nevin, who works for an environmental firm. "If she falls down, there's nobody there to help her out."
He signed up with Alarm.com (877-389-4033) in McLean, Va. The company sends status reports, in the form of brief text messages, to Nevin's cell phone. "You know when she's out working in the greenhouse," which has a sensor on it, he says. "You get the sense that she's going about her day just fine. And if you don't get a notice, you call to make sure everything's okay."
Gabriel Ross of Minneapolis lives 20 minutes away from her mother, Kathryn, 81, who resides in an apartment in nearby St. Paul. "She's had a stroke in the past, has arthritis and uses a walker," says Ross. "The possibility of falling is definitely there." Ross is trying to manage her mother's care while working full-time as the head of a nonprofit organization. "It's a lot of work," she says.
It was fairly easy for Ross to persuade her mother to try Mendota Heights, Minn.–based Healthsense (www.healthsense.com; 800-576-1779): "My technique with her is to say, 'You know, we really want to keep you living independently,' and that's what she wants." Monitoring, Ross says, "was another way of helping us to keep her independent."
Getting the process right involves trial and error, because the software must learn the senior's daily routine. QuietCare customer Washington says that soon after her father's system was installed, she received a couple of false-alarm calls from QuietCare. "Once they didn't think he had left his bedroom, but I called him and he was fine," says Washington, who suspects a minor system glitch may have been to blame.
One technology you won't find in most monitored homes is the video camera, although some services offer it as an option. "Video cameras don't actually provide you with any data," says George Boyajian, executive vice-president of Living Independently. "To collect data from a video camera, you have to have somebody watching it all the time, and to know what they're watching for."
Today's home monitoring is primitive compared with what it may become. Technologies that are under development include sensors that can determine if a kitchen stove has been left on (and automatically turns it off) and whether an elderly person's gait has changed, says Alwan, of CAST. If you'd like to see a demonstration of these futuristic systems, you can view a video on the CAST Web site (www.agingtech.org).
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