Your 85-year-old mother is the early stages of dementia, has painful arthritis that makes walking difficult and has cataracts that give her blurry vision. She won't move to an assisted living community because she wants to stay home and age in place. But you fear it's only a matter of time before she gets hurt. You want to honor her desire to stay home, but you also want her to be safe. How do you find an acceptable compromise?
Technology may be able to help.
"Using assistive technologies can extend the length of time an individual can stay home," says Laurie Orlov, an aging in place technology expert. Orlov believes that since technology is getting easier to use, incorporating it into a home and senior's life is feasible. When introducing new technology, families should leverage this increased ease of use and the strong motivation of their senior loved ones to stay at home for as long as possible.
"Technology can help keep a loved one safe at home by providing support with daily functioning, such as medication reminders or a Personal Emergency Response System in case your loved one falls," says Jill Martinelli, senior care advisor at Care.com.
But where to start? Here are common questions people have about incorporating technology into a senior's home and lifestyle to help them age in place.
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How Can Technology Help Seniors?
The goal of aging in place is for a senior to remain in their home -- a place of comfort and familiarity -- safely for as long as possible. Using technology can help achieve this goal. It makes life easier, which in turn should empower your loved one, instead of making them feel like they're losing a sense of control when they struggle to do things for themselves.
Technology can enrich lives too. Countless apps, gadgets and programs are available to keep track of medications and doctor's appointments, prepare grocery lists, read books in larger type or get help immediately in an emergency situation.
"But technology is not going to care for your loved one," says Martinelli. "It can be a support, a stepping stone to needing a caregiver or it can be used in conjunction with a caregiver. You have to find the solution that works for you."
What Types of Technology Benefit Seniors?
Dr. Jill Bjerke, a certified aging in place specialist, recommends keeping things simple and working from a "minimal technology for maximum quality of life" standard. Think about specific areas where your parent struggles. How can they be simplified or improved? What role can technology play?
Then find specific technologies to meet those needs. If your parent has trouble remembering what pills to take, get a medication reminder. If you worry about a senior falling, look into personal emergency response systems or home monitoring systems.
How Can You Bring up the Topic of Technology?
Even if it's useful, learning something new can be overwhelming -- at any age. Minimize the trauma of a technology transition by explaining how a cell phone for example could help a senior stay socially connected and independent, which means peace of mind for you. If your mom knows why you want her to have one, she may be more motivated to use it.
Encourage your parent to share concerns or ask questions about the devices. For example, your mom may think that installing a webcam in her home is an invasion of her privacy. If so, talk about other ways you can check in, like video chatting on Skype.
Martinelli advises families to discuss possible options openly. Giving a senior a choice (such as webcam vs. Skype) will help the individual feel in control. You're involving them in the conversation and decision-making process, rather than foisting the new technology on them.
Will Your Senior Use the Technology?
You can buy the most highly-recommended cell phone for seniors on the market, but it'll still end up as a paperweight if your parent refuses to use it or struggles learning how.
Test it before you buy. Activate an old phone you've retired and let your mother use it for a week or two. Show her the basics, jot down a few simple instructions and let her practice on her own (hands-on is the best way to learn how to use technology).
If these efforts are met with complete resistance, desperate frustration and not even a hint of "this will get easier with practice," you may want to consider lower-tech options.
How Can You Teach Seniors about Technology?
When it comes to introducing your parent or relative to different gadgets and apps, ask your children to step in. Because they're more experienced with technology, they're typically better at explaining it in simple terms. Also, the teaching may be better received when it's coming from a grandchild, without the drama or tension that parent-child dynamics tends to add.
Libraries, senior centers and other organizations offer computer classes for older adults, which also may be a good option. Sometimes it's easier to learn with peers and classes offer the benefit of socialization too. If the idea of a class is daunting to your loved one (or getting out and about is difficult), hire a tutor or local student to come to your home.
When is Technology Not Enough?
As amazing as it is, technology doesn't have all the answers. It should never be used to supplement actual caregiving -- only enhance it. Certain situations may require a caregiver's assistance or physical presence (be it a family member, neighbor or a senior care aide) for a few hours a week, overnight or most of the day.
There may also come a time when it's just not safe for your loved one to stay home -- no matter how many webcams you install. If a senior doesn't answer the phone, seems withdrawn, falls frequently, misses medications or wanders off regularly, you may need to look beyond technology.
As care needs change, you may need to incorporate other types of technology or consider a different arrangement altogether. Think about options like hiring a home care aide or finding senior housing. Figure out what works best for your loved one and the situation, and be open to changes along the way.
A freelance writer, editor and elder care specialist, Michelle Seitzer has written for AARP, Huff/Post50, BELLA NYC magazine, Reader's Digest and numerous boomer and senior-related websites. As a recent adoptive mom, the York, Pa. resident has added content on international adoption to her blog portfolio.