Remember the scene in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” with the Jewish robot tailors Ginsberg and Cohen? (“Maybe you vould like a nice double knit?”) Well, in the not-so-distant future, these “socially assistive” robots may not only be making suits but also preparing kosher-style meals (no cheese on that low-salt, low-fat pastrami sandwich please!). The field of gerontechnology, meaning the use of technology to support elders, is rapidly growing. Technology, usually thought to be the purview of the young, can help support our parents and eventually us Baby Boomers in ways that seemed impossible only a few years ago.
The goal of all of this new technology is the same: to assist older adults in the ways a caregiver does now. Even though the widespread use of robots like Ginsberg and Cohen may be a way off, innovative technology on the market now can monitor older adults in their homes and alert worried adult children of any problems. Baby Boomers should keep an eye on this technology as well, as it will directly affect the way we receive services when we get to be our parents’ age.
One familiar device is the Personal Emergency Response System (PERS). This technology, which has been around for years, provides an older adult with a push-button pendant connected with an emergency center. (Remember the “Help I’ve fallen and can’t get up” commercials?)
While those types of pendants are great, in some situations, the older adult can’t press the button. Fortunately, these companies now offer newer monitors that can detect falls and alert an emergency center even without the device being activated. AFrame Digital (www.aframedigital.com) is an example of a wristwatch that can monitor your parent’s activity, location, and physiological status in real time, indoors or outside. It has sensors to detect falls and can provide an alert without the push of a button. Many of these fall detection devices are available, and most also include a GPS system so someone can be located if they are unable to communicate.
In addition to devices that can detect falls, there are also systems that can detect changes in the temperature of a house, check appliance usage, track an older adult’s movements, and notify an adult child or caregiver of a problem. Some of these may feel intrusive at first but they can be helpful if your parents want to stay in their home. BeClose (www.beclose.com) is a wireless system that uses sensors throughout the home to track an older adult. This allows an adult child, caregiver, or care manager to monitor activities via a secure web page and be notified by email, text, or phone if there are any unusual changes. ENeighbor and PERs+ (both at www.healthsense.com) work on the principle of monitoring activities of daily living and notification without needing to push a button. GrandCare (www.grandcare.com), which has an easy-to-use computer, can let you know if your dad doesn’t get out of bed when he usually does or if he is stepping out at 3 in the morning.
And speaking of communication, if your parents are computer resistant and you can’t send them email, you can solve that problem with an email-printing system called Presto (www.presto.
com) that doesn’t require a computer. Basically, you send an email and the machine prints out a letter for your parents (and then they can no longer complain that you never write!).
One reason that adult children may need to have frequent contact with their parents is to make sure that they are taking their medications at the right times. Technology has also addressed this issue. There are now several products that use lights, vibrations, alarms, or voices to remind people when it is medicine time: Technology has perfected the art of nudging. And these systems can even notify you if the medication isn’t taken. Phillips Medication Dispensing Services (www.managemypills.com) and the Medfolio Electronic Pillbox (www.medfoliopillbox.com) are just two examples of medication reminder products that make audible and visual alerts or send reminders by email or text.
And, finally, one of my favorite devices can be used for grandparents as well as grandkids (get matching sets!). It’s a shoe fitted with a GPS-tracking device that can be connected to your smart phone and is especially useful for older adults who have dementia and tend to wander. You can even set up a specific geographic zone so if your parent goes outside of the designated area, you get an alert. For more information, check out www.navistargpsshoe.com.
If this evolving world of gerontechnology has picqued your interest, you can find more options and ideas at Center for Aging Services Technolo-gies (www.leadingage.org/cast), which lists all kinds of technology-related products and services.
Just as with anything new, there are pluses and minuses to these devices. Some people resist this type of technology because they feel that they are too “big brother” while other older parents and their adult children find that they offer good solutions for seniors wanting to remain safely at home. While new technology can never replace the care that an adult child provides to an aging parent, it can certainly help ease the stress of care-giving. If a “smart cane” can help your mom get to her next mah-jongg game without falling and a “socially assistive” robot can cook up a bowl of chicken soup for your dad, new gerontechnology can’t be developed fast enough for me.
Rob Tufel, MSW, MPH, is director of adult services at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of the East Bay. His columns appear regularly in j’s seniors supplements. Have questions about your aging parents? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (510) 558-7800, ext. 352.