Baby boomers use technology to keep an eye on Mom and Dad

An Article featuring GrandCare from the Toronto Star
September 10, 2010
Susan Pigg
LIVING REPORTER

Olive Howe had barely unpacked from her July vacation when her daughter called with a pressing personal question.

“Are you okay Mom? Because you’ve gained five pounds in the last two days?”

It has been hard for the 81-year-old South Carolina great grandmother to get away with much the last two years, since her daughter started monitoring her every move, blood-pressure blip and weight fluctuation via computer from her home five kilometres away.

“I just laughed. It doesn’t bother me. It’s a comfort knowing that if anything happens to me, or I have a fall, someone will know,” says Howe. “I do not want to go to a nursing home.”

Howe has heart problems. She needs to take her medication and watch what she eats. When she doesn’t, her daughter Sandra Pierce knows almost immediately via email or phone alerts, thanks to the remote monitoring technology GrandCare Systems.

It’s coming to Ontario soon, and just one of a fast-growing number of technologies turning the tables on the traditional parent-child relationship. Suddenly, aging parents who spent decades trying to keep on top of their kids are finding they’re the ones being watched — from across town or across the country.

Over the coming months a raft of new-and-improved remote monitoring devices will hit the market, from GPS shoes that can track the whereabouts of wandering seniors to MedCottages, portable RV-like units equipped with motion and monitoring systems that allow seniors to maintain some independence from the backyard of their adult childrens’ homes.

“As we age, this is going to be a growing trend,” says Laurie Orlov, a Florida-based expert on so-called “aging-in-place technology” aimed at keeping seniors in their houses and out of nursing homes as long as possible.

“We have to get past the fear and antagonism among the older people who need it the most. I don’t think they’re that technology-ready, but the boomers, who are their adult children, certainly are.”

Motion sensors strategically placed in the three-bedroom home where Howe has lived for 53 years feed information right to her daughter’s laptop, detailing when she got out of bed (the Friday we chatted it was 9 a.m.), walked into the bathroom (9:15 a.m.) or hovered at the kitchen table where she keeps her pills (9:30 a.m.)

Even her blood-pressure reading (165/76) is fed to her daughter’s computer, along with her daily weigh-in tally, providing a detailed graph which she often takes to her doctor appointments.

The only thing GrandCare can’t tell Pierce, because her system doesn’t include cameras, is if her mother actually swallowed her pills.

“She can’t have a bit of fun,” jokes Pierce, 59, whose mother explained her sudden weight gain by confessing to indulging in too many roasted nuts and slices of red velvet cake on vacation.

“I have the capability of going online and watching every move she makes, but I don’t typically do that. My mother is very independent and always says she doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone,” says Pierce.

Monitoring and in-home help technologies will be a $20 billion U.S. business in North America by 2020, predicts Orlov, founder of Aging In Place Technology Watch.

Already some baby boomers are able to remotely lock their parents’ doors, track calls coming into their homes and even see who is ringing the doorbell, in many cases right from their smart phones.

Systems such as QuietCare, WellAWARE, FineThanx and SimplyHome are already fixtures in some U.S. homes and seniors’ communities, although Orlov estimates fewer than 10,000 units are in active use because the systems can be so costly.

Next month, Paul Whyte, a Markham dealer of smart-home technology that allows ordinary electronics and appliances to communicate with each other, will unveil the GrandCare system at the Zoomer show in Toronto.

“I call it the invisible caregiver,” says Whyte of Cybernetics Systems Inc. “The minute I saw this system I thought, ‘There’s something that actually makes sense.’

Howe loves the system for another reason. She doesn’t use a computer, but GrandCare enables her relatives to fire off messages and photographs which come up on its large monitor (some versions of the system also plug into the TV.)

The system not only lights the way to the bathroom when Howe gets up in the middle of night, it alerts her daughter if, as happened recently, there was unusual activity in the house: A visiting relative was pacing late at night.

But all these systems remain so cutting edge, they’re intimidatingly costly and complicated, says Orlov.

“We’re not talking about something you just pick off the shelf, run home and plug in.”

GrandCare Systems, for instance, can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $9,000, depending on the level of service, plus there’s a monthly monitoring fee of $50.

Whyte plans to rent out the units for roughly $125 to $350 per month.

Virginia Wesleyan minister Kenneth Dupin has gone one step further with MEDCottages, portable units — some have dubbed them “Granny pods” or “hospital room in your backyard” — that allow seniors to be plunked for as long as needed in their adult children’s backyard.

Dupin refers to the controversial innovation as “family managed care” that he believes could become a key alternative to the overwhelmed and costly nursing home system. (In Ontario alone, for instance, there are 76,000 nursing home beds but 24,000 people on the waiting list.)

The State of Virginia has passed a law allowing installation of MEDCottages in residential backyards, over the objections of local homeowners who have already expressed fears they don’t belong in neighbourhoods.

The key, of course, with all these technologies is that the senior be relatively able-bodied and sound of mind — most are of limited value if the senior is suffering from dementia, which is expected to become a major public health issue in the next few decades.

But developers are also working hard on that challenging front.

Sometime later this fall or next spring the first GPS-equipped shoe, the Aetrex Ambulator, will go on sale through http://www.gpsshoe.com or http://www.foot.com.

Originally designed for children by Los Angeles-based GTX Corp., the new shoes are expected to retail for about $250 U.S. They enable caregivers to track those afflicted with dementia or Alzheimer’s thanks to GPS and cellular technology that will relay their whereabouts back to a monitoring centre.

“Privacy may be a talking point, but it’s not really an issue,” says Patrick Bertagna, chairman and CEO of GTX Corp.

MEDCottage creator Dupin expects concerns around privacy will fade quickly as families and health-care systems here and in the U.S. become overwhelmed by aging baby boomers — more than 76 million in the U.S., 10 million in Canada — who start hitting 65 next year.

“I see remote monitoring becoming an integral part of health care as we all age,” says Dupin. “One of the issues around aging in place is going to be making trade-offs. Privacy may be something we have to give up.”

Susan Pigg focuses on issues about aging and baby boomers.spigg@thestar.ca

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