Ninety-five percent of people 75 and older say they want to stay in their homes indefinitely. This desire for independence is perfectly natural, but for their children, it's also a recipe for worry -- that they'll fall, forget to take their meds, or just need assistance. You can make your parents' home far safer and more comfortable by investing in some of the new devices aimed at elders who have made the choice to "age in place."
Solutions for safety worries
"Seniors can really get in trouble because they feel like they're losing their grip on independence," says Susan Ayers Walker of SmartSilvers Alliance. Ayers monitors technological advances aimed at helping seniors hold on to their independence as they age. These technologies also help the children of aging parents, who worry that Mom is going to fall down the stairs, leave the stove on, or forget to take her medication if no one is around to notice.
Here's a worry-by-worry guide to some innovations -- several tested and recommended by Walker -- that can make all the difference if you're concerned about your live-alone parents' safety or just their day-to-day ease of living.
YOUR WORRY: My parents won't be able to reach me in an emergency.
TECH SOLUTION: Big-button cell phone. According to the Pew Research Center, many seniors won't use a cell phone even in an emergency. They find them too complex, can't manage the tiny buttons, or can't read the screens. A big-button phone like the Jitterbug ($147), designed specifically for seniors, could give you and your parents peace of mind. It's an easy-open clamshell with extra-loud speakers, big backlit buttons, a bright screen with easy-to-read numbers, and a straightforward service contract (at an additional cost). The Jitterbug One-Touch takes simplicity a step further, with just three big, impossible-to-miss buttons -- one for 911; one for the operator, who will connect your parent to anyone she wants to reach; and one preprogrammed to connect your parents to you or another family member. Such phones cost $10 to $80 per month for the service plan in addition to the cost of the phone.
YOUR WORRY: My parents can't clean the house.
TECH SOLUTION: House-cleaning robots. This one isn't as Jetson as it sounds -- the iRobot family of automated cleaners ($120 to $500) is available at your local big-box store. Although you could hire someone to clean your parents' home, Walker points out that being able to vacuum on their own in between visits from the cleaner goes a long way toward restoring your parents' sense of dignity and control. If a box of cereal spills, they can let the tiny, effective iRobot Roomba handle it with the push of a button, rather than struggling with an upright vacuum. The Scooba, which washes floors on its own, can prevent your parents from slipping and falling while trying to keep them clean, and the Looj -- the rain-gutter cleaning robot – can, over time, save on the cost of having a handyman do the job.
YOUR WORRY: My parents will zone out, let the shower get too hot, and get burned.
TECH SOLUTION: Temperature-activated flow reducer. It's relatively low-tech and can cost less than $40, but this gadget sure does work (search for it online using the key words temperature-activated flow reducer). A screw-on faucet attachment prevents burns by shutting off the water from a sink or shower if it gets too hot.
YOUR WORRY: My parents won't remember to take their medications -- or they'll take the wrong ones.
TECH SOLUTION: Automatic pill reminders. By the time a person reaches age 70, says Walker, she's probably taking about 12 medications. The inability to take them unsupervised accounts for up to 40 percent of nursing home admissions. Fortunately, many devices available now can remind your parents to take their pills and keep them from getting their prescriptions scrambled. These range from pillboxes with alarms and timers to services that will send your parents medication reminders by phone, e-mail, or pager. MD.2, for example, is a monitored dispenser that you or a caregiver can load and refill, and your parents can dispense all their pills right on time, with one touch of a button. Rescue Alert will monitor your parents' pillbox electronically and alert a dispatcher if the lid isn't opened when it's supposed to be. Do an Internet search for medication reminder for a tour of the many options and find the one that's the best fit for your parents. Prices vary.
YOUR WORRY: My parents will burn themselves cooking, or leave the stove on and start a fire.
TECH SOLUTION: The Safe-T-element Cooking System. This device consists of cover plates you can install over existing stovetop burners that limit how hot they can get and automatically shut off the stove if they reach a certain temperature. Prices vary.
YOUR WORRY: My parents will fall and won't be able to get up.
TECH SOLUTION: Personal Emergency Response System (PERS). These home devices connect your parents to a 24-hour call center with a push of the button. The transmitter can be worn on a neck pendant or bracelet and sends a signal to the call center via a receiver connected to your parents' home phone line. Your parent can push the button after a fall or any kind of emergency and the call center will contact you or emergency personnel as appropriate.
PERS can be purchased or leased, and prices vary widely. Expect to pay $200 to $1,500 if your parents want to own their system, plus a small monthly monitoring fee. Rentals, which usually include monitoring, average $15 to $50 a month. Lots of companies sell PERS; one way to find one in your area is to do an online search that includes your state or region.
YOUR WORRY: My hard-of-hearing parents will miss phone calls or leave visitors standing outside the door.
TECH SOLUTION: Doorbell-telephone flashing-light signaler. If your parents are getting hard of hearing, a device that enables a ringing doorbell or phone to trigger a flashing light -- including existing house lamps and special strobes for rooms where lamps aren't generally used -- lets them know when they have a call or visitors have arrived. Search for one online using terms such as doorbell and hard of hearing. Such gizmos usually cost $70 and up for doorbell only; $110 for doorbell and phone.
YOUR WORRY: I can't be there all the time -- how will I know my parents are OK?
TECH SOLUTION: Monitoring systems. A number of high-tech monitoring systems on the market now do what you can't: watch over your parents to make sure that nothing out of the ordinary is happening -- and report in to you, your computer, or a dispatcher when something does (for example, one of your parents goes into the bathroom and still hasn't come out an hour later). They usually cost about $200, plus a monthly monitoring fee of about $100. Obviously, to avoid having your parents see you as Big Brother, you'll need to discuss the idea and make sure they're OK with it before buying.
Some, like the QuietCare Plus, work with any PERS your parents already have but add motion detection and also monitor whether the house gets too warm or too cold. All this information is sent to a website that you can check any time, but QuietCare representatives are also on the lookout for anything out-of-the ordinary.
Another option is BeClose, which places discreet sensors throughout the home to track your loved one's daily routine, and sends you an e-mail any time there's a disruption.
Similarly, the E-Neighbor System is programmed to detect unusual activity in the home. A shower left running or a fridge that goes unopened for a day could trigger a phone call to you or a caregiver. Such devices cost about $300 plus $20 per month for emergency call center service.
The GrandCare Como adds a new twist: It reprograms your parents' television via the Internet to monitor their well-being and, unlike other systems, acts as a two-way street, creating a customized "channel" through which you can send photos of grandchildren and coordinate a calendar with caregivers. Prices vary.