Technology that helps seniors stay at home

Savy Senior

Jim MillerJuly 9, 2013 

Dear Savvy Senior,

What types of new home technologies can you recommend to help me keep tabs on my elderly mother? She lives alone, about an hour's drive from me, and I worry about her safety.

— Concerned Daughter


Dear Concerned,

Helping an aging parent remain independent and living in their own home has become a little easier in recent years, thanks to a host of new and improved assistive technology products. Here are some top rated options you should know about.

Medical Alerts

If you're worrying about your mom falling and needing help, one of the most frequently used products over the years for seniors living alone is a medical alert device - also known as a personal emergency response system, or PERS.

These devices provide a wearable "SOS" button — typically in the form of a necklace pendent or bracelet — and a base station that connects to the home phone line.

At the press of a button, your mom could call and talk to a trained operator through the system's base station receiver which works like a powerful speaker phone. The operator will find out what's wrong, and will notify family members, a neighbor, friend or emergency services as needed.

If you're interested in this, there are dozens of services to choose from including the Philips Lifeline (lifelinesys.com, 800-380-3111) which is the most widely used medical alert service in the U.S. and costs around $35 per month. Phillips also offers a new Auto Alert option (for $48 per month) that has fall detection sensors in the SOS button that can automatically summon help without your mom ever having to press a button. This is helpful because many seniors after a fall become confused or disoriented and forget to press the button.

If you're interested in a more budget-friendly option, consider an unmonitored medical alert like the new VTech CareLine Home Safety Telephone System for $120 (vtechphones.com), which doesn't require professional monitoring services, therefore has no monthly monitoring fees.

Or, to deal with falls or health emergencies that happen outside the home, there are mobile-alert GPS products now available that work anywhere. To find these, see GreatCall.com, MobileHelpNow.com and PhilipsLifelineGoSafe.com.

Monitoring Systems

Another more sophisticated technology for keeping tabs on your mom is with a home monitoring system. These systems will let you know whether she is waking up and going to bed on time, eating properly, showering and taking her medicine.

They work through small wireless sensors (not cameras) placed in key locations throughout the home. The sensors will track her movements, learning her daily activity patterns and routines, and will notify you or other family members via text message, email or phone if something out of the ordinary is happening. For instance, if she went to the bathroom and didn't leave it could indicate a fall or other emergency.

You can also check up on her patterns anytime you want through the system's password-protected website. And for additional protection, most services offer SOS call buttons as well that can be placed around the house, or worn.

Some good companies that offer these services are BeClose (beclose.com, 866-574-1784), which runs $399 or $499 for the sensors, plus a $69 monthly service fee if paid a year in advance. And GrandCare Systems (grandcare.com, 262-338-6147), which adds a fantastic social component - through a senior-friendly computer - to go along with the activity monitoring. GrandCare leases for $150 to $300 per month.

Medication Management

If you want to make sure your mom is keeping up with her medications, there are medication management devices you can now rent, that will dispense her medicine on schedule, provide constant reminders, and even notify you if her medicine is not taken. Two products that offer this are MedMinder (medminder.com, 888-633-6463), which rents for $40 per month, and the Philips Medication Dispensing Service (managemypills.com, 888-632-3261) that costs $75/month.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.

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