Dr. Leslie Kernisan asks the question, does sensor technology bring value to seniors?

Lots of people are worried about aging parents who live at home, often alone. Could activity sensors in the home help?  Patients’ families have occasionally asked me about home sensors in the past, but I’m guessing this question will become much more common. After all, sensor technology is becoming much more affordable and easily available. And of course, many people want to help older adults remain safely in their homes. So there seems to be a market out there, and yesterday evening, at an Aging 2.0 event, I heard brief presentations by two companies developing home-based activity sensors targeting the aging market: Lively and Evermind. With both services, sensors provide passive monitoring of an older person’s activity. Evermind uses sensors that are plugged into commonly used appliances. These track use of the appliances, and presumably would generate alerts if the use pattern were to change. Lively uses motion sensors in the home, which relay information to a nicely designed small base station with a cellular connection. Both products seem to require minimal set-up or alteration to a person’s living environment. Evermind is still in development, so pricing and details are TBA. Lively is launching this summer, and will cost $149 for the equipment, plus a monthly subscription fee of $19.95. (Along with the passive activity monitoring, Lively’s service includes postal delivery of Livelygrams, which allow families to share news and pictures with their older loved ones.) So, if you have an aging parent living home alone, should you get one of these activity monitors? Will it help? The answer, of course, depends on how you define help, and just what problem you are hoping to solve.

What problems will activity monitors help solve?

As far as I can tell, these types of activity monitors mainly address the following problems:

  • Families feeling anxious about how an older person is doing.
    • Activity monitors will let families know if the person is not moving around the home — or using applicances — as usual.
  • Older adults don’t like having to frequently tell their families that they are ok, or mind calls to check on how they are doing.
    • If activity monitors can be relied on to flag a change in status, then phone conversations can instead focus on telling stories, or other conversations that don’t highlight anyone’s anxieties about aging, safety, and possible decline/disability.

It’s also possible that these devices might help older adults feel more secure, knowing that someone will be alerted if they significantly change their activity pattern. Is there clinical data on how activity sensors in the home actually affect outcomes and quality of life? I took a quick look in the literature and did not find much on outcomes, although I did come across this nice article in The Gerontologist which reviews some issues that clinicians should consider when advising families re smart home technologies. (The author mentions assisting with information gathering, ensuring comprehension, and ensuring voluntariness.) Back to the original question: will activity sensors in the home be helpful to older adults as they age? Hard to say. The idea of smart homes and connected independence is compelling. And there is something to be said for products that provide some peace of mind. But presumably everyone is also assuming that when these monitors flag a change in activity, someone, somehow, will intervene in such a way that allows the older person to live a better and more independent life. In other words, along with reassurance, it seems to me that these products are implying greater safety for our older loved ones. (Kind of the way that those infant sleep monitors imply reduced risk of SIDS when in fact there is no evidence to support this.) Here, I have to say that I’m a bit skeptical, and if a family asked me for ways to help keep their older loved one safer at home, I might first suggest things like assistance with medication (so many elders are on unnecessary and dangerous medications! and so many elders need to take certain medications daily in order to feel their best), optimizing physical function, reducing fall risk, social activities, and arranging for proper support of ADLs and IADLs. Come to think of it, if you want to monitor activity, why not wire up a medication dispenser, so that you can follow the activity pattern while still helping an older person and her clinical team manage the medication plan? Bottom line: If an activity monitor isn’t too expensive, it seems reasonable to give it a try and see if it feels helpful. Family caregivers are often quite anxious to know how a loved one is doing, and anything that helps them cope with worry and the other challenges of caregiving should be taken seriously. However, I hope families won’t have overly inflated expectations of safety benefits, unless research demonstrates that outcomes other than anxiety are improved. This article was first published at: http://www.geritech.org/   What is your impression of sensor technology in senior housing?  Are you using it?  Is it effective?  What else would you like to see?