Aging in place isn’t just a question of installing grab bars in the bathroom and adding a wheelchair ramp in front of your home. It’s also about safety, comfort and enhanced livability. Smart, connected technology is increasingly important for older adults who want to stay in their current homes.
Age-in-place remodels are increasingly common, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. About one in three remodelers report that at least half their current projects focus on making homes more livable for older Americans.
The JCHS study reports that the most common products and systems are related to safety, security and climate control. Interior and exterior cameras, smart appliances, thermostats, medication dispensers, door locks and other tech are helping older adults remain at home instead of moving into assisted living.
However, those safety and security upgrades can be expensive. If you can’t afford to remodel your home (or the home of a parent you’re caring for), more-affordable solutions exist. Products such as smart plugs and lightbulbs, doorbell cameras and smartwatches are pretty much plug-and-play.
It’s important to note that most tech solutions need high-speed Internet. More than 42% of older adults don’t have this service, according to the nonprofit Older Adults Technology Services. If your home (or your parents’) isn’t connected, you’ll need to investigate the most reliable local Internet options.
Individual homeowners’ needs vary greatly and may change with age, so consider starting with a few basics and adding more items as needed. Here are some ways that technology can help you or your parents live safer and more comfortable.
[ Read: How Can Older Adults Live Independently Longer? ]
Lighting for safety
Household lighting can be programmed to stay on until bedtime in heavily used areas to help prevent falls. Interior motion-sensor lights, which come on when someone enters an area, are also an option. These can be programmed by a central system, or you could just use programmable smart plugs to keep lights on during certain hours.
Bonus: Smart lights can be turned off remotely. If you’re getting into bed and realize you left lights on downstairs, you can tell the smart speaker to turn them off. Or you can turn them off with your smartphone. Smart light bulbs can be purchased at home improvement stores and retailers such as Amazon and will typically cost $10 to $45. Smart plugs generally run from $20 to $50.
Motion-activated outdoor lighting can help you get into the house safely at night. It doesn’t necessarily have to be hard-wired; many battery-powered models are available. If you want continuous nighttime lighting, opt for a photosensitive dusk-to-dawn light that comes on and goes off automatically.
Exterior lighting will also help visitors get to your door safely—and alert you if someone is prowling on the property at night. Wildlife will sometimes trigger the sensors, but if you have exterior video cameras, you’ll know when it’s just a deer versus a potential intruder. Home improvement stores and other retailers, including Amazon, have exterior lighting options that cost as little as $20.
If you’re helping care for parents who are housebound due to poor health, video calls are a simple way to check in on them. Instruct them to use the video call function on their smartphone or tablet. Those who can’t hold these items for very long could stream calls through a television screen.
Video calling also gives visual clues about loved ones’ well-being. For example, you might notice they’ve been wearing the same clothes all week, or that clutter is building up in the room.
Smart speakers such as Amazon Echo or Google Nest make hands-free calling possible, including calling for help (“Alexa! Call 911!”). These devices can provide audio reminders, such as “It’s time for your blood pressure medication.” You also can add specialized services, such as fall detection or access to emergency assistance.
Smartwatches, such as the Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Watch, are another way to protect a loved one (or yourself). For example, some watches can detect whether someone has fallen then call their emergency contacts or emergency services. Others can monitor things such as sleeping patterns, oxygen levels and heart rate. Smartwatches can also alert you if the wearer has left a specific area, including the family home.
There also are the tried-and-true LifeCall Medical Alert Systems. Users wear a pendant with sensors to detect falls and signal for emergency assistance.
Setting up cameras in the house lets you check in on your loved ones. Discuss this with them first, though, because it could feel like an invasion of privacy. If you’re an older adult, cameras in the house can allow your adult children or other family members to keep tabs on you to ensure you are safe.
If anyone comes into the home regularly, such as a housecleaner or personal care attendant, be sure to let them know that cameras are on and are checked randomly. This not only protects their privacy but also could help prevent theft or elder abuse. (A thieving housekeeper might think twice about dipping into a jewelry box if she knew she might be seen.)
Instead of (or in addition to) cameras, you can install sensors around the home. For example, one such product—iGuardStove—will turn off the stove if there’s been no activity in the kitchen after five minutes.
Sensors can also recognize patterns or changes in patterns. Suppose it reports that your parent is mostly sitting in front of the TV all day. This could lead you to suggest a senior exercise program, volunteering or a MeetUp group. If the sensors reveal a lack of motion in the place where daily medications are stored, you can look for ways—such as audio reminders—to make sure your parents are taking their pills.
Some smart systems can even identify potentially risky patterns. For example, Alarm.com’s Wellsness system can report if an older adult isn’t sleeping or is using the bathroom more (or less) often.
Two security issues exist: Keeping the bad guys out, and keeping the good guys safe. For example, you can buy sensors that let you know if doors or windows are open. It’s also possible to install an automatic door, so that a resident with mobility issues can let visitors in more easily.
How would you or your loved one know whether it’s safe to open the door? By checking the video doorbell camera to see that it’s the housecleaner, the dog walker or Meals on Wheels.
Many of these systems feature two-way audio, so you can “answer” the door without opening the door. Sure, it might be a neighbor kid asking to shovel the steps—but it might also be a potential burglar who wants to know if anyone’s home. For extra security, you can place additional exterior cameras on the house or in trees.
Arlo exterior cameras and video doorbells were rated among the best in Consumer Reports’ 2022 rankings of video equipment. The cost runs from about $102 to $300, depending on the features you want.
Consumer Reports also lists several Arlo interior cameras in its rankings. These cost anywhere from $101 to $299. Other products in their top five are from Google Nest and Lorex.
Every year, millions of older Americans are victimized by scammers and identity thieves. If you’re responsible for an older family member—or concerned about our own financial well-being—it’s a good idea to take advantage of technology to guard against fraud.
A service such as Carefull monitors financial accounts for signs of fraud and common money mistakes and alerts you to unusual activity. You can use the service to monitor your accounts and add trusted contacts, who will get view-only access to your accounts and also receive alerts. Or you can use the service to monitor the financial accounts of a loved one you’re helping with money matters.
Carefull’s financial monitoring can alert you to things such as …
- Missed, late or duplicate payments;
- Unusual transfers and transactions that can be signs of fraud;
- Changes in spending and insufficient funds to cover upcoming bills;
- Unintended donations that can happen when you accidentally sign up for recurring payments; and
- Gift card purchases, which scammers often ask victims to make and provide them with the numbers to pay fees to claim prizes or make other payments.
In addition to account monitoring, Carefull provides credit and identity monitoring and up to $1 million in identity theft insurance.
Another reason to set up financial oversight: Your parents might be having trouble handling their finances but are too embarrassed to ask for help. Or maybe they don’t realize they’re in trouble, attributing bounced checks or late fees to having been “too busy” to take care of bills and banking. Either way, creating a way to monitor their money health can help keep them from being victimized and increase both their personal and financial security.
It’s a good idea to set up account monitoring for your own accounts and to give trusted family members view-only access. Don’t think of this as giving up your independence. Instead, consider it a smart way to protect your finances as you age. Iif you start to experience cognitive decline, you might not recognize that you need support. If your family members can get a better feel for what’s normal for you by monitoring your accounts now, they’ll know better when to step in and help if more and more abnormal transactions pop up in your accounts.
[ Keep Reading: How Your Risk of Financial Exploitation Increases With Age ]