Maintaining independence is a key motivator for senior citizens. Internet-enabled technology is helping many achieve that goal, thanks to communications that track medications and schedules, allow elderly parents and their children to stay in touch, and even monitor potential home safety hazards (such as burners on stoves). The growth of this technology can’t come too soon. By 2020, the average American life expectancy will be 79.82 years, and between 2020 and 2030, it is expected that one in every five Americans will be over the age of 65.
“Aging is a problem that has an impact not only on the elderly, but on the workforce,” said Brian Bischoff, CEO of Healthsense, a Mendota Heights, Minn., provider of WiFi and Internet-based technology that assists the elderly in daily living. “There is a set of problems confronting the elderly and their families, and a combination of WiFi, cellular, and Internet-delivered technology can assist in solving those problems.”
Bischoff says his company does 80 percent of its business today with assisted living and nursing institutions, which contract for Internet monitoring systems that tie into WiFi campuses within the facilities. The other 20 percent of Healthsense's business is WiFi/Internet installations of sensing technology in private homes. He projects that this ratio will be reversed in the future.
“We saw the trend to home systems begin to emerge a couple of years ago,” said Bischoff. “The big factor was the economy and older people and their families realizing that they would have to stay at home, instead of paying $4,000 or more a month for assisted living.”
A 24/7 one-bedroom apartment monitoring and alert system that runs over standard WiFi and Internet technology to a central response center can cost less than $2,000 to install, with an ongoing monthly service charge of less than $100.
Efforts are also under way to build “smart homes” with sensors that can monitor the settings for burners on the stove, the position of refrigerator doors, whether someone has left the house for a number of days, and lack of movement within the house, which could suggest the resident has fallen. “Retrofitting an apartment is not cost prohibitive,” said Diane Cook, a computer scientist at Washington State University. “It is a few thousand dollars.”
Not everyone is comfortable with these automated systems. Nursing and assisted living facilities, which could lose revenue if more people stay at home, are reluctant to endorse the technology outside institutionalized settings. On the consumer side, the work at Washington State University turned up privacy concerns, such as people feeling uncomfortable with a system that was “watching their every move.” Other aging experts cite limited exposure to Internet technology as a potential obstacle for the elderly, though this is becoming less of a problem, as a result of the growing number of senior citizens participating in social networks like Facebook.
Will we reach a point where sensors and monitoring systems become standard equipment in senior housing? With the baby boomer aging crisis yet to hit full force, that eventuality seems likely. However, if “smart” senior homes are implemented in any widespread community scenario, their success will depend on a robust and highly reliable local Internet infrastructure and excellent call and respond operations in call centers. These will require high-quality service and uptime from supporting IT resources, along with the ability to interoperate with diverse mobile and sensing devices over the Internet.
Once the infrastructure is in place, services for homes could be further extended to cover online grocery shopping, placing orders for lawn and home care, or accessing medical Websites. “Significant work has been done, and research continues,” said Bischoff. “But it’s still stunning to see how many people don’t yet know that this [level of monitoring and communication] is possible today.”