Armed with everything from sensors, Webcams and GPS devices to pendants and bracelets with emergency buttons, caregivers are increasingly relying on technology to keep track of their parents remotely while allowing those seniors to have a sense of independence. While the market for this technology is wildly fragmented and not easily measured, few doubt it's growing.
"I believe the technologies on the market are very promising. And what is coming down the pike will be more integrated systems that include monitoring wellness, safety, physiological and medication monitoring all tied together into a personal health record," said Majd Alwan, director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies.
Perhaps of greatest interest to tech buffs is what a number of companies are doing to bring various monitoring pieces together. Home Guardian, a start-up that came out of a University of Virginia project, for example, is working on a detector that uses floor sensors, rather than a device strapped to the body, to detect when someone falls.
"Studies have shown that the greatest fear the elderly have is falling. And the second greatest fear, especially for those living alone, is they won't get help quickly," said Steve Kell, Home Guardian's chief technology officer.
Home Guardian sensors are designed to feed information into a PC, which transmits the information to either a monitoring service or caregiver. The fall detector system is scheduled for a commercial beta test in mid-July at a senior housing facility in Florida. The beta will run for six months.
Home Guardian, which has yet to set a price for the system, expects to license the technology to home health care monitoring companies, or home health agencies, which in turn will provide it to consumers.
In Australia, information technology lecturers Peter Leijdekkers and Valerie Gay of the , are developing a mobile heart rate monitor called Personal Health Monitor.
The monitoring system, which includes a wireless sensor worn by the senior, as well as smart phones, Bluetooth and GPS technologies, is designed to monitor falls, weight and blood pressure in real time--both inside and outside the home.
Information gathered through the wireless sensors is transmitted to the smart phone. That information is then remotely sent to a health care service, or patient's doctor, as well as their caregivers, via text messages.
Webcams linked up to the Personal Health Monitor provide a way to further verify if an elderly parent has fallen, but Gay cautioned: "Patients need to be comfortable (with Webcams). My guess is not a lot of people will want to use it, unless they are in danger."
Although a trial test was held with three patients to test the monitor's viability, a larger clinical test will be held beginning next month and will include 200 heart patients during a 12-month period, Leijdekkers said. The monitor has already generated interest from one large global company, which may ultimately take it to market. The Personal Health Monitor could run as much as $2,500, Leijdekkers said.
Technology, some believe, can help people straining under family responsibilities. Long-distance caregivers tend to be 51 years old, on average, with 27 percent of them taking care of a minor living at home and an elderly parent, according to a 2004 survey of 1,130 long-distance caregivers by MetLife Mature Market Institute and the National Alliance for Caregiving. The survey also found that nearly 80 percent of these caregivers work either full time or part time.
To help, several devices are already available that send an immediate alert to a monitoring service, should a senior suffer a fall or ailment while in the home.
A senior wearing a bracelet or pendant with a personal emergency response system (PERS) could hit the emergency button if he or she falls or has a heart attack, for example.
A signal would then be triggered to a communicator device hooked up to the senior's home phone, which would call the monitoring service. The service would then use the communicator as a two-way intercom to talk to the senior and determine whether an emergency vehicle, family member or friend should come over. Philips Lifeline, for example, sells such a service for $35 per month for equipment and monitoring.
Other technologies already on the market include sensors stationed throughout the house, some of which work in conjunction with a PERS device.
Security company ADT, for example, offers three home health monitoring services. One is a PERS product called Companion Service. Another is a sensor-system set-up called QuietCare, and a third service combines both offerings.
QuietCare uses five to 10 sensors stationed throughout the home, located in such areas as near the bedroom door, bathroom door, refrigerator door and family room. The sensors transmit information to an ADT monitoring service, as well as an online account for the caregiver. Installation of the sensors costs $199, and the monitoring service costs $79.95 per month. An additional $100 is needed for the PERS system, and another $10 for that service.
CNET News.com's Dawn Kawamoto reports on two tools that help caregivers monitor the elderly.
Webcams to monitor seniors inside their homes are also hitting the market. Last October, AT&T launched its Home Monitoring Service, which includes sensors and Webcams. And although the Webcams feature a privacy button, it can be overridden by the account holder.
"There needs to be a trust factor. If your mother pushes the privacy button, there needs to be some agreement you'll honor it, or agree to certain circumstances when you would override it," said Brad Bridges, AT&T assistant vice president of business development.
The Webcams are tied into motion-detector sensors, and provide a view into designated areas inside and outside the home. Alerts are sent to account holders if it detects movement, but the system currently does not send out alerts if it detects no activity.
The AT&T equipment is priced at $99. Any broadband service can be used by the caregiver and senior. The account holder, however, is required to have an AT&T wireless account.
The question, of course, is who will pay for this technology--insurance companies, the government, adult caregivers, or seniors on a fixed income?
"A lot of people think insurance companies should pay for it," Home Guardian's Kell said. "Right now, it's the consumer who pays for these types of systems."