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For the elderly, smart homes mean the promise of more freedom

Bryn Huntpalmer | June 28, 2016
While not a panacea, new technologies promise to enable the elderly to stay in their homes longer and more safely

It's easy to forget that home automation is about more than just gadgets. After all, almost every product you can think of is getting the smart home treatment-from the highly useful, such as automated locks, to the slightly less necessary: smart fridges that solve the formidable problem of telling you when you're out of milk. But for the elderly, smart tech means more than just a few new toys. It holds the promise of autonomy-being able to stay in homes longer and more safely, which can be completely game-changing.

Institutional elderly care, as it currently stands, is imperfect at best. Most pressingly, it's not affordable. HUD reports that costs for elderly care can range anywhere from $900 to over $5,000 per month. But for all that money, it's not really all that effective, either. Initial studies indicate that staying in the home-or aging in place, as it's called-results in remarkably better health outcomes than moving to a care facility, especially when it comes to cognitive ability and depression rates.

However, the elderly obviously face challenges that inhibit independent living. Access to emergency care is a priority, of course, but even rote tasks like washing and bathing pose difficulties for elderly facing mobility issues. Meanwhile, the aging may be dealing with cognitive challenges that make day to day activities difficult, if not unsafe. Smart technology promises assistance in the form of data mining and monitoring-"learning" objects that are able to distinguish between usual behavioral patterns and an accident, and can alert healthcare providers in the event of the latter.

Creating a connected home

While individual devices demonstrate great promise for elder care safety and quality of life, the smart home's current limitation-an issue that affects all age groups-is that there is no ideal unified system of control. Selecting a home hub device means navigating a list of supported products and systems, a difficult feat for someone not at ease with technology.

Even Apple's HomeKit, which promises to connect a jumble of different products, requires downloading and installing a manufacturer app for each appliance or device. And in the hands of an older person, that difficulty might be more than an annoyance-it might be a barrier to entry. Developers who hope to assist the aging must concentrate on simplicity rather than customization-and having an exceptionally user-friendly app will likely make the difference here.

That's how the technology stands in its current iteration.  The dream is that the hardware in appliances will one day allow communication without the help of a human aide. You can imagine the potential of that sort of technology for the elderly. For instance, a patient in the early phases of dementia wouldn't need to worry about leaving the stove on-motion sensors installed in the space could detect when a home was empty and shut dangerous devices off.


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