As with previous generations, the children of baby boomers are seeking appropriate care services for their parents as their needs for assistance grow. Whether that care is provided in the home, an assisted living facility, or a nursing home depends on financial and health factors, along with parental preference.
Although care facilities may provide children with greater peace of mind, they may not be optimal for parents. Therefore, discussions relating to eventual care options—best conducted proactively while parents are still in good physical and mental health—are highly important and potentially contentious.
Over the next several decades, the most significant trend in elder care will likely be a growing emphasis on “aging in place,” an approach that allows the elderly to remain in their homes while maintaining their independence and social relationships for as long as possible. Assisted living, long a mainstay in elder care, is unlikely to continue as the primary care model for seniors, as 87% would rather age in the comfort of their own home, according to AARP. Moreover, by 2030, one-fifth of the total U.S. population—about 69 million people—will be 65 and older, further increasing the need for new solutions in elder care. In fact, the US Census also states that the 65 and older population will exceed the under-five population by 2020, a first in our nation’s history. Soon, there will not be enough children to adequately support the care needs of aging parents.
Although remaining in familiar surroundings contributes to greater contentment and life span in the elderly, an aging in place plan will not be successful unless it includes a few crucial elements. Senior care must be provided in a safe and effective manner, with family members or caregivers consulting seniors on a regular basis to ensure continuity of care. In addition, physical modifications to the home will likely be necessary.
The Role of Technology
Fortunately, the seniors of today possess considerably more technological knowledge, and comfort with technology, than their predecessors, improving the potential for successfully aging at home. According to the National Institutes of Health, “consumer health technologies may help stem rising health care needs and costs by improving provider-to-patient communication, health monitoring, and information access and enabling self-care.”
With a reasonable amount of planning and modifications, a home can adequately meet the needs of older residents. Further, government assistance with these tasks may be forthcoming. If passed, the recently introduced Senior Accessible Housing Act would grant tax credits of up to $30,000 to “enhance the ability of the individuals to remain living safely, independently, and comfortably in their residences,” thus incentivizing older Americans to prepare their homes for aging in place.
Both government entities and private-sector companies are likely to provide additional solutions to support seniors’ efforts to age in their own homes. Regardless of the source, technology must play a central role in supporting the key objective: maintaining meaningful interactions between seniors and their caregivers and/or families. Remaining in the home instead of transitioning to an assisted living facility or group home offers significant benefits to many seniors, and can mitigate symptoms of a wide range of physical and emotional illnesses.
In the Home
Wide hallways and smooth floors can assist seniors who use canes, walkers or wheelchairs. Installation of smart lighting with voice-activated controls provides active residents with bright environments throughout the home, while reducing energy costs. Voice controlled HVAC systems and phone systems eliminate the need to fiddle with dials or remember to turn on the heat or air conditioning. Bathrooms with railings, walk-in showers and heated floors provide reassurance and physical comfort. Smart whole-home technologies allows for remote control of music, outdoor irrigation sensors, heated pavement for snow melting and intercoms, as well as garage door openers.
In the Kitchen
Smart lighting can ensure that kitchens are brightly lit when in use, while turning off the lights afterwards. One of the primary dangers for elderly parents who live alone is the risk of fires related to cooking. The iGuardStove device works with either gas or electric stoves, reducing the potential for fires by automatically turning these appliances off after a set period of time. Microwave ovens now offer large, easy-to-read panels and shortcut buttons for frequently cooked items such as popcorn. In addition, an Amazon Echo Show can assist forgetful seniors with cooking questions while providing access to videos on food preparation.
In the Bedroom
Beds that automatically raise and lower themselves decrease the effort required to climb in or out, reduce stress on joints, and allow for appropriate elevation of the head or legs. Many such beds offer built-in controls for a TV or a radio.
Technology used in hospitals is beginning to enter the home. For example, the EarlySense LIVE is a simple sensor placed under a mattress which alerts adult children when elderly parents leave their beds in the middle of the night, but fail to return within a predetermined period of time. It can also monitor heart rate, breathing and other functions, and then “report back” via an app.
TVs can be set to turn off after a certain period of time, and can also be connected to home monitoring systems, allowing seniors to view the interiors of various rooms, as well as outdoor areas. In case of emergency, a panic button can summon family members, police or an ambulance.
Smart Medical Equipment
Recognizing the health benefits of retaining independence while aging, insurance companies increasingly support aging in place plans. For example, these companies will often provide Internet-connected scales that alert medical personnel if an elderly parent has gained or lost an abnormal amount of weight in a short period of time, and may even facilitate admission to hospitals for monitoring. They also support agencies such as Home Instead which provide seniors and their family members with in-home nursing and physical therapy services, along with guidance and supervision on use of necessary durable medical equipment such as walkers or bathing aids. Additional solutions that contribute to the success of aging in place plans include pill reminders, fall alert devices, and various Internet-enabled technologies that allow family and friends to remain involved in seniors’ lives without neglecting their jobs or other family responsibilities.
Newer insulin delivery and monitoring systems, with pre-measured doses, facilitate management and tracking of diabetes therapy, limiting the risk of dangerous mix-ups or overdoses. Even local transportation is relatively simple, thanks to rideshare services like Uber or Lyft that can assist seniors with travel to errands and social activities, while reducing reliance on private cars.
A Human Connection
Although smart homes provide valuable support to elderly parents, they cannot substitute for human interaction. Skype and FaceTime are adequate solutions to maintaining daily contact across long distances, but they require both participants in calls to effectively utilize an app. Similarly, although Amazon’s new Echo Show reduces the technological challenges associated with video calls, it still suffers from issues relating to small screen size and placement.
In contrast, Beam by Suitable Technologies combines mobility and video conferencing in an appliance-like device that eliminates the need for seniors to utilize any software. When seniors have a Beam in the home, faraway family members or health care providers can use the Beam App to instantly be present with them, while relying on Beam’s safe, reliable mobility to accompany them as they carry out household activities. Doctors can use Beam to visit patients; children can use Beam to join elderly parents for chats, TV viewing, board games and meals, or simply to “check on things” before bedtime. Unlike more conventional methods of communication, seniors who communicate via Beam have no need to scramble to answer calls or carry a device to converse while moving from place to place. With Beam, they can keep in touch while preparing meals, relaxing in a favorite chair, or even lying in bed.
I placed a Beam in the palliative care facility where my mother spent the last few months of her life, and along with many family members and friends, found it to be a truly remarkable tool for keeping in touch. At some point, I will share additional details regarding this special use case.
While assisting living still remains a necessary course of action for many, new technologies are extending the period of time during which seniors can safely—and happily—remain in their homes.