With our country’s growing aging population and a constant stream of technological advances, it’s no surprise that companies are finding innovative ways to support older adults. From smartwatches that track vitals and location to in-home systems with cameras and movement sensors, caregivers have an unprecedented amount of new tools to monitor their loved one.
Both interest and investment in the senior tech space were already growing prior to 2020, says Jennifer Kent, vice president of research at Parks Associates, but the pandemic accelerated the pace. “COVID-19 exposed the vulnerability of the senior population, exacerbated the social isolation many seniors experience and made family caregivers’ jobs more difficult,” Kent explains. “As a result of COVID-19 and its associated pressures, seniors and their loved ones have increasingly turned to technology.” According to her firm, senior usage of telehealth, video conferencing and digital food delivery services surged.
Additionally, as of May 2020, Parks Associates found that 39% of family caregivers had considered or purchased remote monitoring solutions to track their loved one’s health and well-being. With nursing homes being virus hotspots during the pandemic, some seniors prefer to live at home independently for longer. While it’s not always the right solution, remote senior monitoring technology has the potential to help make this a reality, says Carol Bradley Bursack, an author, founder of Minding Our Elders and seasoned family caregiver of seniors.
Bursack heard many anecdotes of monitoring technology proving useful during the pandemic, when in-person care wasn’t possible. But these systems don’t work perfectly and can introduce privacy concerns, so choosing a monitoring system should be a personal decision that factors in the senior’s comfort levels and cognitive abilities, Bursack says.
Here, what she and other experts say you can do to find the one that’s right for you.
Types of monitoring options
As the market for senior remote monitoring booms, the increasing number of options can be overwhelming. Here are some of the options you’re most likely to find:
- Apps or programs that use existing smartwatches to monitor health and/or location.
- Personal emergency response systems, like the button Bursack described but with new features such as fall detection.
- Video and/or audio monitoring through cameras or speakers, some with two-way communication.
- Sensors that detect movement or actions, like a front door opening or chair being sat in, and can flag abnormal behavior.
- Emergency detection for fire, smoke, carbon monoxide, etc.
- Voice assistants that give reminders and do certain commands.
- Smart door locks so caregivers can provide access to specific people and monitor activity.
In technology-based use cases, Kent’s research firm found that both seniors and their caregivers are most interested in monitoring that offers two key benefits: detecting home emergencies (such as fire, water and gas leaks) and the ability to push a button on a device for help. She notes that both of these have long been widely available with existing technology, but new devices offer them with additional features and a more modern, attractive look.
If you’re looking for sophisticated remote senior monitoring, consider some of these top options:
Using a smart speaker, LifePod stands out due to its robust caregiving features and voice assistant support, Kent says. This tech product utilizes vocal assistance, allowing caregivers to set up proactive reminders and check-ins, both for daily routines like taking medication and one-off appointment reminders. The senior can respond and say if the activity is done, and caregivers receive notifications. It integrates with other smart home technology, such as voice-commanded turning off and on of lights, and it has an emergency alert feature.
Their customizable system can include cameras, two-way audio video screens, bed and chair occupancy sensors, room temperature sensors, door and window sensors and emergency buttons. There’s a family support option, where caregivers access live video and alerts through an online portal. If outside help is needed, Rest Assured offers remote assistance through their in-house team of remote caregivers. They have several plans, such as continuous daily support, periodic check-ins or reminders, or passive emergency-only monitoring.
Kent says Lively’s senior-focused products are noteworthy, including their modernized PERS devices. Unlike an old-school panic button, their Mobile Plus device has automatic fall detection, GPS tracking and two-way audio communication. With a monthly subscription plan, the senior is connected 24/7 to Lively’s urgent response team, who can get help or put them in touch with a doctor or nurse.
Kent praises this device for looking like a modern smartwatch, “overcoming seniors’ strong resistance to wear something that indicates fragility or illness.” This wearable device offers two ways for seniors to call for help and access emergency services, and their emergency information and contacts are stored. It’s equipped with mobile service, WiFi and GPS, so it’s always online. It also has a feature where the wearer can send recordings or pre-set messages to caregivers.
If you’re already a user of Amazon’s Alexa technology, you may find it easy to adopt their free feature to remotely check in. It connects your loved one’s Echo device to your phone’s Alexa app, allowing you to set up customized alerts. You can get notified if they ask for help or have no activity, see their general activity (like you can see if they viewed entertainment, but not what they watched), or drop in for a check-up video or phone call with an intercom-like feature.
The BUDDY app requires your loved one to have a smartwatch, and the companion app goes on your smartphone. Using data from the smartwatch, BUDDY can sense activity and alert caregivers in certain situations, such as if a fall is detected, if the senior leaves a geographic boundary, or if vital signs move to irregular or dangerous levels. It has medication management and reminder capabilities, in addition to a safety feature where the senior can indicate if they feel unsafe, which sends out the alert and location to their caregiver and/or emergency services.
How to pinpoint the best remote monitoring option
Ask yourself these questions as you evaluate the best senior monitoring system for your family:
What are the pros and cons?
When Bursack was a caregiver for her elderly mom and a neighbor, the only monitoring technology available was personal alarm systems. These were very useful, she remembers, but only to a point since the alarms provided no information, couldn’t detect falls and were sometimes set off accidentally.
Kent says this class of device, called a Personal Emergency Response System (PERS), has evolved dramatically. “The new products have mobile technology, so they work out of the home, and many have GPS to track a user’s location if they may be a wandering risk,” she explains.
While newer technologies provide far more information, much of it automated, it can feel like an invasion of privacy to some seniors, especially systems with cameras. “Our data every year is clear — internal video cameras for monitoring loved ones is highly desired by caregivers, but ranks at the bottom of the list by seniors themselves,” Kent says.
In addition to privacy concerns, Bursack reminds caregivers that even the best technology isn’t foolproof and shouldn’t be fully relied upon as a human substitute. For example, she says, just because a sensor says someone opened their fridge doesn’t mean they took out food and ate it, and she’s heard anecdotes of some fall detection devices being unreliable.
How is their health and cognition?
The senior’s cognitive condition and health needs should ideally determine the extent of the monitoring system, Bursack says. That’s because cognitive issues may warrant more robust features, such as a wearable with a GPS tracker for an Alzheimer’s patient who wanders. They may also need a system that does the work for them, since someone with dementia may not remember to press a button for help, Bursack explains.
Health issues should also be considered; for example, for a senior who’s a fall risk, devices that detect falls could be life-saving. If those issues aren’t present, Bursack says some technology may feel too invasive.
What are their privacy needs?
While some senior monitoring solutions such as Lorex include in-home cameras, Kent’s research shows seniors typically find internal monitoring cameras too invasive. Unless they’re absolutely necessary, she recommends limiting cameras to be external only, or video doorbells that only monitor entryways.
Some seniors may also be averse to the idea of their location being tracked. Bursack says caregivers may overestimate the need for monitoring, so it’s important to talk with the senior and compare their need for assistance with their desire for privacy. It’s important to assess “if they feel safer with more surveillance or if they feel really invaded,” Bursack adds.
Are wearables realistic?
Think carefully before jumping for a solution utilizing a wearable. “For some seniors, a modern wearable with emergency assistance features like an Apple Watch is a much more attractive option than something that communicates fraily or sickness, like a traditional panic button device,” Kent says. But depending on the senior’s age and health condition, she adds, wearing something constantly may be too uncomfortable, and the frequent charging may be too burdensome.
How much setup or adjustment is required?
“Seniors are willing to try new products and services that they find valuable, delivering safety, health communication and peace of mind benefits that are relevant to their lives,” she says. However, some new technology has more of a learning curve than others, so Bursack recommends starting slowly with any new monitoring technology to help the senior understand it and accept it, both to educate them and so it doesn’t feel forced.
As time goes on, new options will continue to appear with additional features. Some new devices, like ElliQ, even have conversations with seniors who are lonely. Ultimately, Bursack says, choosing the right system is highly personal. When possible, the process should involve the preferences, comfort levels and genuine needs of your loved one. “The elder’s dignity and autonomy need to be respected as much as possible, even for those with cognitive issues,” she says.