Technologies Help Adult Children Monitor Aging Parents
IN the wee hours of July 14, Elizabeth Roach, a 70-year-old widow, got out of bed and went to the living room of her Virginia ranch home. She sat in her favorite chair for 15 minutes, then returned to bed.
She rose again shortly after 6, went to the kitchen, plugged in the coffee pot, showered and took her weight and blood pressure. Throughout the morning, she moved back and forth between the kitchen and the living room. She opened her medicine cabinet at 12:21 and closed it at 12:22. Immediately afterward, she opened the refrigerator door for almost three minutes. At 1:36, she opened the kitchen door and went outside.
All this information — including her exact weight (126 pounds) and blood pressure reading (139/98) — was transmitted via the Internet to her 44-year-old son, Michael Murdock, who reviewed it from his home office in suburban Denver.
All was normal — meaning all was well.
“Right now she’s not home,” Mr. Murdock said. That he deduced because the sensors he had installed throughout his mother’s home told him that the kitchen door — which leads outside — had not been reopened since 1:36, more than an hour earlier. The opening of the medicine cabinet midday confirmed to him that his mother had taken her medicine. And he was satisfied that she had eaten lunch because the refrigerator door was open more than just a few seconds.
In the general scheme of life, parents are the ones who keep tabs on the children. But now, a raft of new technology is making it possible for adult children to monitor to a stunningly precise degree the daily movements and habits of their aging parents.
The purpose is to provide enough supervision to make it possible for elderly people to stay in their homes rather than move to an assisted-living facility or nursing home — a goal almost universally embraced as both emotionally and financially desirable. With that in mind, a vast spectrum of companies, from giants like General Electric to start-ups like iReminder of Westfield, N.J., which has developed a system to notify families if loved ones haven’t taken their medicine, are looking for a piece of the market of families with an aging relative.
Many of the systems are godsends for families. But, as with any parent-child relationship, all loving intentions can be tempered by issues of control, role-reversal, guilt and a little deception — enough loaded stuff to fill a psychology syllabus. For just as the current population of adults in their 30s and 40s have built a reputation for being a generation of hyper-involved, hovering parents to their own children, they now have the tools to micro-manage their aging mothers and fathers as well…
The system Mr. Murdock persuaded his mother to install is called GrandCare, produced by a company of the same name based in West Bend, Wis. It allows families to place movement sensors throughout a house. Information — about when doors were opened, what time a person got into and out of bed, whether there’s been any movement in a room for a certain time period — is sent out via e-mail, text message or voice mail. He said his GrandCare system cost $8,000 to install — about as much as two months at the local assisted-living facility, Mr. Murdock said — plus monthly fees of about $75. The company says that costs vary depending on what features a client chooses.
In addition to giving him peace of mind that his mother is fine, the system helps assuage that midlife sense of guilt. “I have a large amount of guilt,” Mr. Murdock admitted. “I’m really far away. I’m not helping to take care of her, to mow her lawn, to be a good son.”
His mother, Mrs. Roach, was nervous at first when her son brought up the idea of using the system. “I didn’t want to be invaded,” she said. “I didn’t understand the system and was concerned about privacy.” Now that it’s in place, she said, she’s changed her mind: “I was all wrong. I’m not feeling like I’m being watched all day.” And she really enjoys the system’s feature that lets her play games and receive photos and messages from her children and grandchildren. (She never learned to use e-mail.)
Mrs. Roach has no major health issues that require the kind of watching she is getting, and oddly enough, that is the ideal scenario. Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities at AARP, said it’s best to discuss using such technology long before a parent’s health has slipped to a point where she might actually need it. “You frame it that way: ‘We’re so happy that things are going so well. We want to make sure to keep it that way. Let’s talk about what we can do to make sure.’ ”
What often follows is pushback. After all, this is not a generation known for its ease with technology…
Adult children who call parents to check up on them have learned to be careful about how they phrase their questions. “I personally don’t make it so that I’m watching,” Mr. Murdock said. “I don’t say, ‘Mom, I was looking and you didn’t do this.’ I say, ‘Mom, are you O.K.? I noticed you didn’t take your medicine.’ It’s a balancing act, but it’s an easy conversation. It’s not like I’m calling every day saying, ‘Did you do this or did you do that?’ ”