Parenting Upward

Sensor Technology can provide independence for Seniors and peace of mind for their caregivers.

It’s every child of an aging or ill parent’s worst nightmare:You get a call and your parent or loved one has slipped and fallen,gone into a coma or suffered a stroke, and no one knew for far too long.

Aging-in-place, or staying in their own home as they get older, is the way most people want to spend their senior years. However, for seniors with multiple health conditions or risks of serious sudden complications from stroke, heart attach, or diabetic shock it has not always been an option, even though they may have been physically able in all other ways.

Having a parent or loved one live with an informal caregiver, such as a child or other relative, has been the answer for many, but even that arrangement leaves many opportunities for worry over accidents when the caregiver has to be away. Even the risk of the loved one simply forgetting their medication could lead to sleepless nights, extra stress, and possible negative consequences.

Technology generally thought of as being made by and for a younger and younger crowd, is taking notice of these issues and aiming to do something about it.

Several companies, such as HealthSense ( ) and WellAware ( ), are beginning to offer non-invasive sensor monitoring of a residence to help eliminate fear and worry and allow seniors to remain at home longer.

Using wi-fi the system can help remind your loved one to take their medication, monitor slips and falls, and call EMS if needed.

A University of Missouri researcher modified an X-box Kinect device to monitor and detect changes in levels of movement in the apartments of residents in a retirement complex. A year later, they found that the residents who had been monitored had a better health outcome than those that hadn’t. They attribute this outcome to early intervention by nurses who were able to check on residents when their movement patterns seemed amiss.

The big surprise was that the results of this study showed that the sensors had picked up disturbed sleep patterns, or a decrease in daily activity, or change in gait that occurred 1-2 weeks before a slip and fall or a trip to the doctor.

It’s not just movement that can be monitored for changes to help improve healthcare. For example, a sensor under a mattress can detect disturbed sleep or problems breathing in ones sleep that can indicate a heart condition or sleep apnea, or more trips to the bathroom could mean a urinary tract infection.

This kind of monitoring could help ensure that seniors can remain at home, or in their current residential arrangement much longer than before.

Ultimately, it can save lives, such as the case of Bertha Branch, a diabetic with a heart condition, featured in a New York Times article. She had the HealthSense E Neighbor system that alerted firefighters to come to her rescue when she had slipped and fallen over night and hadn’t moved or responded to a call from a monitoring service.  She credits the system for saving her life and recounted how she had lost a friend who had slipped into a diabetic coma overnight after having fallen.

“She was also diabetic and she fell during the night. She didn’t have the sensors. She went into a coma.”

The benefit of peace of mind extends not only to the seniors who are using the technology, but their families and caregivers. Paul Marrs of Minnesota was recently featured in a Star Tribune article. He also has a sensor system in his senior residence apartment which sends out an alls-well email to his family on a daily basis.

This type of program is an advantage over older life-alert type systems which required the person to be willing to and remember to wear a device, which they are not always willing to do; and be alert enough to use it.

As beneficial as it may be, new technology is often expensive and this type of monitoring is no exception.

The Healthsense system used in the Minnesota Kingsway residence of Paul Marrs  has a one-time fee of $1,500 to rent, $550 to install and program the system, and a monthly monitoring fee of $150.

Sharon Blume, director of family services and technology at Kingsway points out that the savings are there, if you can afford the up front costs. “That sounds expensive, but it’s about the same as two weeks in a nursing home,” she said “The savings start pretty quick.”

Some home healthcare agencies and resident communities, like Kingsway, are beginning to incorporate this technology into their model of care, but it is hardly main stream.

The benefits of sensor technology to both your elder loved one and you as their caregiver can be very lucrative. As of now, there is no Medigap supplemental insurance plan or government program to help cover individual costs, although some agencies have begun to receive grants to implement it for low-income seniors.