A one-stop smart home shop to help you care for mom and dad

One startup wants to bring about a revolution in eldercare using smart home technology.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
  • She has a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Erin Carson
5 min read
Watch this: This startup wants to use smart homes for eldercare

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

Allison Dean Love was getting nervous.

She hadn't heard from her mother, Amelia, in a few hours. There were no emails or phone calls. No one else could get in touch with her either.

Concerned, a cousin went out to Amelia Dean's 1948 ranch-style house and found the 82-year-old on the floor and dehydrated. She doesn't remember what happened, but her family estimates she'd been down there for about six hours.

Love and her husband, who live in South Carolina, raced back to the small town of Columbia, Tennessee -- Love can remember every minute of that awful day like an episode of Fox television show " 24," she said.

That was in November. Fast-forward to March, and Love found herself once more asking a cousin to check on Dean. This time, Dean was sitting in a chair in her living room. She was dehydrated, but not as badly, and it had only been an hour and 45 minutes since Love suspected something was wrong.

Love was able to keep better tabs on her mom thanks to HoneyCo Homes, a startup that outfitted Dean's house with a series of sensors that send data to a dashboard on an app on Love's phone. When her mother hadn't set off a single motion detector in the house in a while, she went into action.

"I'm always checking the system," Love said. "First thing I do in the morning and last thing I do before bed at night is check the system."

While consumers are increasingly tinkering with their homes to add smart items like light bulbs and door locks, one startup is trying to take that approach to address the challenge of eldercare. The aging Baby Boomer generation ensures a larger swath of the population will need care than ever before. As of the last US Census, about 15.9 percent of the population was 65 or older. The US Department of Health and Human Services projects that percentage will hit about 21.7 percent by 2040. What's more, some 12 million seniors will need long-term care by 2020.

Enlarge Image

Allison Dean Love takes a selfie with her mother, Amelia Dean.

Erin Carson/CNET

Trying to determine what would be safest and healthiest for an aging loved one stirs up a lot of emotions for families. Eldercare expert and author Barbara McVicker sees a drift away from the practice of having elderly parents move in with their adult children, leading to more senior citizens living by themselves.

"If [an older person] makes the choice to stay in the home, it's how do you make that possible -- how do you retrofit, how do you make certain that there's food in the refrigerator, that their meds are being laid out correctly?" McVicker said.

When you think of a smart home, you might think of voice-controlled personal assistants like Google Home or the Amazon Echo. Or its connected doorbells and fridges that tell you the milk's expired.

Stringing together an array of smart devices into a home is no easy task for even a moderately tech-savvy individual -- let alone someone enjoying their retirement. HoneyCo, based in Nashville, offers a one-stop shop for the smart home, taking products off the shelf and corralling them into a single, easy-to-use software platform. HoneyCo charges a monthly fee to manage the service.

Companies like AT&T and Comcast offer similar services to consumers looking to smarten up their homes but lacking the technical expertise. HoneyCo stands out, though, because it addresses the specific needs of the elderly.

The idea is that Dean isn't thinking about the fact her home is smart. She's just going about her day while the tech watches her in an indirect way. For one thing, there are no cameras, because as much as Love would like to be able to see her mom, Dean is pretty set against it.

"I don't want you watching me," she told her with a light southern accent.

A home that takes care of you

On an unusually warm March day in Columbia, just days after Love flew back into town following her mother's latest scare, HoneyCo CEO Zachary Watson and software developer Zachary McCormick went out to Dean's house with a new tech toy. It was a video intercom, a little like an iPad, but with a retractable covering over the camera, much to Dean's liking. Love can call her mother, and Dean can answer it with her voice.

Watson and McCormick set it up, and Dean and Love practiced using it, with Love going outside to the carport to make the test call.

That brought back memories of that day in November.

"I could hear [the phone] ringing," Dean said. "I even had my hearing aids in. I couldn't do a thing about it."

With something like the video intercom, she could have answered even though she couldn't get up.

Watson said HoneyCo can customize the system to the needs of the client. The basic package starts at about $150 a month and maxes out at about $350.

Back in HoneyCo's office, which is decorated with vintage movie posters, Watson demos some of the other features the company offers. There's a remote stove shutoff and locks, and HoneyCo figured out a way to help a different client keep up with her many medications. Whenever it's time to take one, a lamp's light bulb changes color and only goes back to normal when a sensor inside the box containing the medication registers that it's been opened. The company can even keep tabs on how often the toilet is flushed, as that can be an indicator of how much fluid is being consumed.

"We turn the home into something that cares for them while they're inside of it," Watson said.

Clients also get a HoneyCo Ambassador, or someone who assists them in essentially doing whatever it is they want to do, even in person.

There's other movement around smart home tech for seniors. Netherlands-based GreenPeak Technologies has an application that uses an algorithm to learn and to recognize patterns. When a pattern breaks, the application can notify family members. Lively offers a smartwatch that delivers things like medication reminders, a smart home hub and sensors for spots like a pillbox or refrigerator.

For now, HoneyCo is just in Nashville. Watson can't say how many clients it has but says it's growing. It's also started pilot programs with two care companies. In the long term, Watson wants to see current housing -- multigenerational single-family homes -- turned into a supported network of infrastructure and technology that lets people stay where they want.

Until then, Love is glad to have found a way to keep Dean happy, safe and in her home of 37 years.

"I had promised her years ago that she could stay here forever," Love said, "I told her 'I want you to have peace and to be able to stay at home, but I also need peace too.'"

CNET Magazine: Check out a sampling of the stories you'll find in CNET's newsstand edition.

Technically Literate: Original works of short fiction with unique perspectives on tech, exclusively on CNET.