Smart Home

Persuading your older parents to take the smart home leap

Smart home devices can help aging adults live independently and give caregivers peace of mind -- as long as you know how to start the conversation.

This is part of CNET's "Tech Enabled" series about the role technology plays in helping the disability community.

First, Sophie Godek tried to read books with a magnifying glass. Then, she turned to a tablet to make the words on her e-books larger. Eventually, she couldn't even see that. The 95-year-old was losing her sight, and with it, one of her favorite hobbies.

"She wasn't able to read anymore, and that was a big loss," said her son Jim Godek.

Last year, the younger Godek had an idea: What if he could get his mom a device that could read books to her without the need to navigate a control screen that she had a hard time seeing?

That device turned out to be the Amazon Echo, an internet-connected smart speaker that responds to voice commands. Jim Godek figured that he could buy his mother audiobooks from Audible, then teach her to use voice prompts to have the Echo play the audiobook.

At first, Sophie Godek was a little wary.

"It took a little while to convince her of it," Jim Godek said. "Her thought was that we're going to have wires everywhere."

Eventually, she agreed to try it. It's been nearly a year, and she's listened to 178 books.

Smart home gadgets like the Amazon Echo can provide an extra layer of comfort and protection for older adults who want to stay in their own homes as they age. They can also give caregivers or adult children like Jim Godek a means to monitor them, especially if they don't live close to one another.

Sophie Godek isn't alone. Roughly 90 percent of seniors intend to continue living in their current home for the next five to 10 years, according to a survey taken by the AARP in 2012. But change -- in the form of new technology -- can be scary and intimidating. How do you tell your parents you want them to use a smart home device to help them live independently?

"Starting any kind of conversation with the elderly can be tricky," said Barbara McVickers, an eldercare expert and author. "Mom and Dad sometimes don't want to talk about this. They see this as a role reversal. They still want to be in charge. It becomes a tug-of-war with the parents wanting to be autonomous and the child caring about the well-being of their parents."

It's important to include senior adults in conversations about adding smart home technology to their lives.

UIG via Getty Images

Here are some tips about how to start a conversation with your parents about upgrading to smart home tech for their benefit -- and yours:

  • Include them in the conversation instead of telling them what to do. "If we just go blaring in there as adult children, they're going to really dig their heels in," McVickers said. Listen to their own concerns, and share your own, too.
  • Learn about all the options. Do a little research about what devices are available that could help your parents continue to live on their own. Visit people or facilities who have tried out those technologies. These types of products are worth consideration:
    • Smart speakers. The Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers are both voice-activated, which can help folks who can't see. The speakers can also connect to other smart home devices so you can give voice commands to shut off things like lights if mobility is an issue.
    • Smart smoke/carbon monoxide detectors. Detectors like the Nest Protect will send alerts to your phone if they detect smoke or carbon monoxide so you will know what's going on at your parents' home even when you're away.
    • Security systems. Wi-Fi-enabled cameras like the Nest Cam or complete systems like the Scout Home Security System can help keep your parents and their home safe by providing remote monitoring.
    • Automatic shut-off devices. Products like the IGuardStove Intelligent shut off your stove if your parent is away from the cook top for too long, which could help prevent house fires.
    • A whole-home system. Service providers like AT&T and Comcast can install a set of devices that will work together from one platform. One Nashville-based company called HoneyCo even focuses on the specific needs of older adults by installing devices such as a video intercom so you don't have to get up to see who's at the door.
  • Call a family meeting to talk about how you want to help your parents. Bring in your siblings or other family members who provide care for your parents so "everyone is deciding together what is best for mom and dad," McVickers said. Consider bringing in a third party your parents trust so they can provide some perspective, too, such as their physician, insurance agent or a family friend.
  • Provide a real-life example of how a gadget could help. Do you have a friend whose parents' home got broken into who could have benefited from a security system? Use stories like that to illustrate the need to add some devices to their homes. And discuss how a device could help make your life easier, especially if you are the primary caregiver. McVickers suggests that you make a statement like this: "I'm doing this out of love and safety, but we need to know how we can help you age the way you wish."

Voice-activated smart speakers like the Amazon Echo (left) or the Google Home can be helpful for people who need to give voice commands.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET
  • If your parents are on board with adding a smart home gadget to their routine, pick something that's simple and requires little interaction. New technology is intimidating, and something too difficult to learn can turn off aging parents. For your parents to successfully make a new device a part of their lives, "it almost has to work flawlessly without their interaction," McVickers said. (Check out these smart home devices that are easier to use.)
  • Install new devices for your parents and write down step-by-step instructions for how to use them. "If Mom and Dad can't use it, it's not helpful at all," McVickers said.
  • Make sure your parents have a reliable internet connection and Wi-Fi network if the devices you choose rely on Wi-Fi. Here are some Wi-Fi systems that will help make sure your parents and their devices stay online.
  • Reevaluate how your parents are doing with the new device. Check in regularly to see if the device is helping them. Stay on top of your parents' needs since they could change and require new and different technology.
  • Know when to accept defeat. Your parents might be adamant against changes to their routine. "There's a certain point you can't do anything else," McVickers said. "They're adults. Forgive yourself if you don't get everything in place."

For Sophie Godek, the introduction of the Amazon Echo into her home has had a huge impact, according to her son.

"She has made the comment that she can look forward to something brand new every day when she gets up," he said.

They've added a smart thermostat to Sophie Godek's home that she can voice-control, too. But all of the additions have to be on her terms.

"It's still her life," Jim Godek said. "I can have all the input I want, but it's her choice."

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