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Technology for Seniors

May 12, 2010

January 6, 2010,

9:56 am

Old Age, New Gizmos


When the vast Consumer Electronics Show, underway this week in Las Vegas, adds an exhibition called Silvers Summit, devoted to new products for the aging and their caregivers, brace yourselves. American tech companies, taking notice of the unmistakable demographic trends, have launched a surge.

“When you have a growing market segment, everybody wants a piece of the action,” said Majd Alwan, director of the <a href=””>Center for Aging Services Technologies</a>, itself just six years old.

What’s coming?
<div><img src=”; alt=”The Wellcore base station.” />Courtesy Wellcore The Wellcore base station.</div>
Among the merchandise being unveiled at the summit, now in its second year, is a mobile personal emergency response system developed by a Silicon Valley firm called Wellcore. Described as an improvement on those pendants many seniors wear — or promise to wear and then don’t — the Wellcore device incorporates fall detection sensors that can automatically summon help without the user having to press a button. Plus, it beeps to remind a senior to put it on and then, if it’s still not being worn, alerts a family member.

When paired with a compatible cellphone, it can be used outside the home anywhere there’s phone coverage. It also tracks a senior’s normal movement patterns and develops an average, so that when someone is sluggish or inactive, even if he hasn’t fallen, a caregiver logging onto a protected Web site can see the change. “We’re the next generation,” said Pete Janssen, executive vice president of Wellcore, which plans to begin shipping the system in March.

Emergency alert services have become a proliferating category in silvertech, Dr. Alwan reported, along with sensor systems for the home, various kinds of long-distance health monitoring (for what’s sometimes called telemedicine) and smart medication dispensers that provide reminders and control dosage. Some dispensers signal a caregiver when a dose isn’t taken or a pharmacy when it’s time for a refill.

Meanwhile, other entrepreneurs aim to exploit the Web’s communications capabilities. An Ohio firm called <a href=””>Connect 4 Healthcare</a> was born when its C.E.O. Neil Moore wanted to stay in touch with his father-in-law’s nursing home. Staffers would tell him “‘nobody’s available right now; we’ll call you back.’ And they’d call back when I was on a plane or in a meeting,” Mr. Moore recalled. “It was just frustrating.”

The Connect for Healthcare system gives family members access to a site where paid caregivers enter regular status updates about how a resident is faring. Families choose the specific matters they want to track, from appetite to socialization, and can also use the service to ask questions and raise concerns; most choose to receive the information by e-mail or text message. A small but growing number of home care agencies, nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Ohio, Texas and California have thus far signed on to provide such updates.

Another new Web site, <a href=””></a&gt;, supplies a variety of tools for caregivers: a calendar through which to coordinate medical appointments and medications; a shopping portal for everything from grab bars to incontinence briefs; cost calculators for long-term care; a search function to find local services and facilities.

All these new sites and services and gadgets can be a bit dizzying. Are all they really going to make it easier to care for aging relatives? The predictable answer: It depends.

“We need to keep the characteristics of the individual in mind,” Dr. Alwan cautioned. The emergency systems, for instance, may be valuable for seniors living alone who are physically frail but cognitively intact. But if they’re prone to confusion or have dementia, will they be able to operate the system? Or remember what a reminder beep is for?

Moreover, Dr. Alwan added, “The companies that succeed will have not only the right technology and marketing but, more important, will bundle the technology with strong services on the back end.” Yes, it could be helpful to have a device that sends alerts about emergencies, or changes in health or activity. “But who reviews the data?,” Dr. Alwan said. “Who acts on data that shows functional decline? Who provides the emergency services? And who pays for the services?”

Consumers should also expect products to evolve. “The obsolescence is inevitable,” Dr. Alwan said. “There’s always something better, cheaper, faster. Look at your cellphone.” A device purchased today (Wellcore will charge $199 for the system with one clip-on monitor, plus $49.99 a month) has a likely life cycle of three to five years, he said.

But for harried or distant caregivers, silvertech that works to maintain communication and promote independence (if it does) could still be very valuable. A few hundred dollars spent on a system that can keep a parent out of an institution for a year (if it does) represents a worthwhile investment.

Major corporations are moving into this field, so look for a tide of products, with accompanying marketing crusades. The new stuff is worth investigating, but it also demands sober calculations about what will really work for a particular family in a particular situation. “Otherwise,” Dr. Alwan said, “we’ll end up with gadgets and gizmos that look interesting but will probably not get adopted and embraced.”
<a href=””>Paula Span</a> is the author of “When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions.”</em>

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