Brave new world: Will home technology make seniors safer?

Article from Fifty Plus Advocate By Brian Goslow

Jeanette Pearce lives hundreds of miles away from her son and daughter but is able to stay in daily contact with them — and they are able to check on her well being without having to constantly call her.
Pearce and her children are leading the way into a new frontier, one that could play a key role in allowing seniors to live in their homes for many extra years: The 87-year-old is one of the first people to have a GrandCare monitoring system installed in her home.
“We’ve always kept in close contact,” Pearce said, “but now, sometimes when they’re on the phone, they’ll tell me they’re about to send me a picture.”
When her son, Rod, moved his family into a new home in Ohio, Pearce, who lives at Ravenwood Village in Hagertown, Md., said she almost felt she had moved with them, thanks to the photos they posted soon afterwards. Her daughter, Laura, also sent photos when she moved into a new apartment in St. Louis.
“My daughter fixed the system so when they send me a new picture, a cuckoo sounds to let me know it’s arrived,” Pearce said.
GrandCare Systems, based in West Bend, Wis., began developing the product in the 1990s, and brought it to market in 2006 with the promise of helping to alleviate “the loneliness and social isolation associated with aging.”
A series of products allows family members and caretakers to remotely check up on the well being of their loved ones and charges. GrandCare’s most recent release can monitor a person’s weight and blood pressure, receive messages from pre-approved parties, get the latest news and weather and show videos from family events.
GrandCare is not alone in developing technology intended to help seniors stay at home. The MIT AgeLab in Cambridge ( has been creating age-friendly technology since 1999. The goal of its eHome Social Kitchen Project is to create products that combine NASA-designed technology — intended for use in outer space — with its own monitoring technology that’ll lead to a domestic kitchen setup that allows caretakers to watch out-of-the-norm behavior from afar.
“We’re tying to make it safer for older adults to age at home longer and maintain their independence,” said AgeLab communications coordinator Angelina T. Gennis. “It’s aimed at not having caregivers and kids have to go over to their patient’s or parent’s home daily to make sure they’re safe.”
While the intention of these technologies is to help seniors live at home longer, there are some people who want nothing to do with “big brother” watching their every move. If a monitoring system of any kind diminished a person’s feeling of independence, it could negate the benefit it was intended to provide.
“I would be 100 percent opposed to a tracking device of this sort if the senior adult was disapproving of it,” said Alissa A. Cavanaugh, MSW, of Cornelius, N.C., a licensed clinical social worker. “The benefits of remaining in the home would be abolished if an older adult believed a tracking devise would impede on how they have decided to age optimally.”
Cavanaugh provides counseling services in the homes of older adults and their families. She works closely with caretakers who are unable to monitor their parents as much as they’d like to due to time constraints. She thought electronic monitoring systems sounds like an effective way to help aging parents stay in their own homes for as long as possible.
When seniors feel depressed, Cavanaugh said, a major contributing factor is the feeling of losing control of their lives, self-determination and independence.
“Providing the senior with the ability to make this important decision (to have a monitoring system installed) autonomously can be extremely empowering and allow them to own decisions about their health and well-being.”
Pearce had no problem having the GrandCare system installed. Thanks to six sensors set up throughout her apartment, her children can check in via computer or cell phone message to see if her day is moving routinely. On occasion, when she’s left or returned to her apartment at a non-routine time, her daughter has called to confirm her safety. “I was glad she called,” Pearce said. “If I didn’t come back in, it could have meant that I’d fallen. It’s good to have somebody else checking up on me. I’m perfectly satisfied with it.”
Pete McMillin, managing and marketing director for the Diakon Ravinwood and Robinwood Lutheran Senior Living Communities in Maryland, helped oversee the GrandCare installations there. His personal experience makes him want to see products that help seniors age at home safely — most notably the time his grandmother suffered a painful fall and wasn’t discovered for two days.
When GrandCare was being showcased for potential volunteers at Ravinwood and Robinwood, one resident signed on for the program after her daughter convinced her of the potential benefits. “She didn’t think it concerned her while her daughter was nodding her head, ‘Yes, yes, that would be a big help and big relief to me,’ ” McMillin said. “We both said to her, ‘Maam, you move around in a walker. When do you think you’ll need it?’ ”
Greg Lescalleet, Ravinwood and Robinwood’s facility manager, wanted to make sure his mother, Shirley Lescalleet, 74, of nearby State Line, Pa., follows her normal routine. He uses GrandCare to monitor her restroom, bed and recliner movement. If she doesn’t check her blood pressure and weight daily, the GrandCare system will send her a reminder to do so.
“When she goes to her doctor, I can print out 30 days of blood pressure and weight readings,” Lescalleet said. “The doctor sees it as a handy tool.”
Shirley Lescalleet is a late-night person — with a well-intended curfew. “Once it hits 11 p.m., if she opens her door, I get a message,” said her son. “One time, I got a message at 3 a.m. that her outside door had been opened. When I asked her about it, she said her dog wanted to go out. It was rational thinking on her part.”
Greg Lescalleet said the system makes him confident his mom can stay in her home another 10 to 15 years, her health willing.
Jude Harper, director of operations for the Harper Technology Group, which sells and installs GrandCare’s monitoring and communication systems, compares using the system to using a bank ATM. “It’s probably easier, along the lines with using a dishwasher and dryer. But not as hard as trying to fully use a microwave; some of those settings are difficult.”
Harper said the GrandCare technology is built simply so a senior wouldn’t have to deal with the frustration that goes into the set-up of a computer, let alone the series of technological challenges that would follow.
Rather, a simple touch of the screen allows seniors to access their favorite sources of news or the websites for local community centers, church organizations or town activities.
They can also get e-mail from preselected sources, normally family members and friends, which protects against the spam that has led to many a senior giving up their computer out of frustration or paying for repairs after a computer virus incapacitates their machine.
The systems also provide games intended to help keep seniors’ minds sharp. “Studies released by a lot of medical doctors show a lot of the benefits of mind engagement beyond crossword puzzles,” Harper said. “The games, which take 20 minutes to play and are normally played five times a week, stimulate different parts of the brain and brain health and brain fitness.”
The GrandCare games have proven to have another benefit as well. “A lot of the time, grandchildren will come over and start playing the games,” Harper said. “The children look up to their grandparents now because they’ve cool — they’ve got games.”
Due to its relative small size, the GrandCare system can be brought along when a senior travels or goes to a seasonal second home. “You can pack your devices into a bag,” Harper said. “It weighs about a pound and a half. It keeps your information and health data up to date. It’s a pro-active approach.”
GrandCare can be bought outright or leased. Along with an upfront care plan and installation fee, the monthly rental rate runs between $199 and $399. Currently, four monitoring systems with a variety of features and options are offered. For more information, visit
Among the products in development at MIT’s AgeLab is a monitoring device that attaches to an electrical socket to detect energy use -— such as turning on a coffeemaker or electric stove or using an electric can opener -— as a way of notifying those monitoring a senior that they’re following their normal patterns for the day.
A “smart trashcan” monitors food usage and intake through a sensor that reads a package’s expiration date; a scale below calculates how much of the package contents were eaten. If something is tossed after its expiration date and detected to have been unused or barely eaten through its weight reading, it tells the caregiver that part of the senior’s nutritional needs may be being neglected.
AgeLab research associate Daisuke Asai said it plans to install eHome Social Kitchen prototypes in two homes in the United States and two in Japan this December to test its workability.
It’ll be a while until the eHome Social Kitchen can be used widely. “The major problem is affordability,” Gennis said. “We’re using NASA technology. It’s all very expensive. We have to find out how to make it affordable to bring into the kitchen at prices that people can afford.”
One major consideration for AgeLab in developing new monitoring technology is whether or not adult children are seeking these kinds of items to help them look after their parents. “We have the technology to place anything in the home,” Gennis said. “The question is how to go about doing it in a way that allows seniors to keep their independence and dignity.”
To gather this information, AgeLab regularly conducts focus group meetings, and has partnered with The Hartford, which has gone into older adult living communities to talk with residents about the kind of items they’d like to have in their homes in the future.
“The strength of AgeLab is looking at these things from many different levels,” Gennis said. “It’s not about creating fun and new devices, it’s about creating devices that will be beneficial to people’s lives.”

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