High-tech keeps eye on ageing parents

2015-05-05 21:11


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San Francisco - Each time 81-year-old Bill Dworsky or his 80-year-old wife Dorothy opens the refrigerator, closes the bathroom door or lifts the lid on a pill container, tiny sensors in their  home make notes on a digital logbook.

The couple's 53-year-old son, Phil, checks it daily on his smartphone. If there's no activity during a designated time, the younger Dworsky gets an automated email, so he can decide whether to call or stop by.

"This is peace of mind, really," he says of the system he installed last year.

The Silicon Valley tech executive lives just across town, but the sensors help him keep an eye on his ageing parents while also raising a teenage daughter and frequently travelling for work. While his parents don't need a lot of assistance, they have stopped driving and his father uses a cane.

"I want to be in the position where I will know when I need to step in," he says.

Advances in low-cost sensors and wireless networks are fuelling a boom in the so-called "smart" home. And companies are looking beyond home security and temperature control to creating products for Baby Boomers trying to balance caring for ageing parents and respecting their independence.

It's a new twist on the notion of personal alarms, such as the Life Alert system that gained popularity with "Help, I've fallen and can't get up" advertisements.

These systems often use simple, inexpensive components such as accelerometers that know when an object is moved. Others use small power sensors to track electricity use or contact circuits that tell when a door is open or closed.

Companies like Lively, Evermind and BeClose charge $50 to $300 for a set of sensors and $30 to $70 a month for wireless monitoring. Each promises to safeguard clients' personal information.

Fiercely independent

A set of motion sensors from San Francisco-based Lively seemed right for the Dworskys, whose son calls them "fiercely independent." Before hearing about Lively, Phil had raised the idea of a webcam in their home. "They immediately didn't want it. It was a privacy violation," he said. But they agreed to sensors that collect "a more limited set of information."

Dorothy doesn't think much about the system tracking her daily routine. "It's un-intrusive. That's what we like about it," she said. "We want to be able to stay in our home, and this is one way that makes it possible."

Electronic tracking does raise issues around dignity and privacy, says Dr Christine Ritchie, a geriatrics professor at the University of California, San Francisco. She believes some concerns will diminish as more people get used to using fitness bands, "smart" thermostats and other gadgets that track their daily lives, though. And independence is attractive.

"Many of my older patients would be totally unenthusiastic about having anyone monitor any part of their life," says Ritchie. "But some would be grateful for the prospect of continuing to live in their own home, rather than an institution where they have less control."

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