By ROBIN ERB Detroit Free Press
The digital age is making aging a whole lot easier.
From talking pill dispensers to tracking devices tucked inside tennis shoes to digital medical scanners that can transmit vital signs to the doctor, today's gadgets help seniors stay in their homes and can give relief to loved ones and caregivers.
"It gives them peace of mind," Ed Rockett, 83, said of his sons. The Farmington Hills man, a retired educator, said he doesn't mind the pleasant digital voice from his pill dispenser that reminds him in the morning and evening that it's time for his meds.
Nor does it bother him that his son, a three-hour drive away, is sent a short video each time the senior Rockett walks into the path of a motion-sensor activated camera in his dining area where he takes his pills. Near Houghton Lake, an e-mail pings the smartphone of Rockett's son, also named Ed, to let him know a new video is available.
The younger Rockett said he glances at the video to make sure his father is moving around easily: "It's not so much about him taking his medicine. It's nice to see him and we joke. I can say 'Hey, you're wearing the same shirt as yesterday.' We have a good time with it."
The new gadgets -- once available only to hospitals and the wealthiest consumers -- are accessible now to more modest-income homes.
Wisconsin-based GrandCare Systems provides consoles and software, for example, in seniors' homes that can not only measure blood-sugar levels or pulse-oxygen but also provide video communication with loved ones and function almost as an entertainment center as well.
Marketing coordinator Ashley Taylor said the company provided one for a relative. At first, like many seniors, he was resistant, Taylor said. But he changed his mind, she said, "as soon as I loaded up the system with Betty Boop cartoons and Pink Floyd music."
For his part, the elder Rockett is part of a pilot program at his senior living facility to test the new pill dispenser and the video monitor that is trained on the area immediately around his dispenser. It's connected to a call center operated by Guardian Alarm. If Rockett misses a pill, the dispenser would alert Guardian, which in turn, would call Rockett's appointed loved ones.
"You never think it will happen to you, getting older," Rockett said, chuckling.
Many products can be found in self-help and medical goods shops, but they're also offered online. Some are sold directly by manufacturers; others have been collected in online stores such as the Alzheimer's Store at www.alzstore.com. It offers products ranging from clothing and accessories to telephones and medical equipment for those with memory loss.
Advocates say it's best to consult with health care providers for suggestions on what to use. Among the products:
Pill dispensers: Some not only dispense an allotted number of pills at pre-set times, they allow caregivers to record messages and they also send out alerts through a resident's phone line if pills go untouched. Southfield-based Guardian Alarm sells several types at www.guardianmedicalmonitoring.com.
Guardian's dispensers are electric, with a battery backup.
Emergency buttons: Personal Emergency Response Systems, or PERS, are provided by many home security systems, allowing seniors to call for help if they've fallen or are suddenly disoriented. They can be worn as a pendant or wristband. Through Guardian, the average monthly monitoring fee is about $30; set-up or activation is usually less than $50.
Newer versions offered elsewhere also contain a sort of gyroscope that senses if the wearer falls.
Some emergency systems don't require a security system to be hooked up. Rather, a wireless signal prompts a phone to call programmed numbers such as 911 or a family member.
Stove-top sensors: Special stoves come equipped with a Safe-T-element cooking system that automatically switches off the stove top if the temperature exceeds 700 degrees, said Kevin Callahan, CEO of Ontario-based Pioneering Technology, the manufacturer. Costs vary, depending on the stove. At www.thiscaringhome.org, the burners cost $170, plus installation. For more information, visit www.pioneeringtech.com.
Unattended stove tops and cooking fires caused an estimated 156,400 fires and 420 deaths in 2010, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Tele-health sensors: A number of devices can measure a person's vital signs -- weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, for example -- and send the readings to doctors or caregivers. The devices are good especially for seniors who have difficulty finding transportation for frequent visits to the doctor. The devices provide doctors with better, more-complete health monitoring. Purchasing an entire system can cost more than $1,000 but offer not only easy-to-read, touch-screen consoles that track vital sign readings but also photos, files and messages from loved ones. Caregivers log on remotely with a password. Visit www.grandcare.com.
Phones: New phones come equipped with large buttons and video screens that can make it easier for a person to keep in touch or call for emergency help. The VTech CareLine, for example, features buttons that can be fitted with loved ones' pictures and it comes with a pendant that can be used to send an alert should a person fall or face another emergency situation. Unlike safety pendants connected to an alarm system, there is no monthly fee. Visit www.vtechphones.com.
Movement trackers: A number of trackers are on the market for those with memory problems, but Los Angeles-based GTX, has teamed up with New Jersey-based shoe manufacturer Aetrex Worldwide to provide shoes with GPS trackers inconspicuously stitched inside.
GPS trackers in cellphones, or placed in a car or purse may be left behind -- but even a fading memory that can no longer recall the names of loved ones holds fast to a lifetime of routine. "They just have to remember to put on their shoes," said Patrick Bertagna, CEO of GTX. Visit www.navistargpsshoe.com.
Alarm systems: For loved ones in danger of wandering off at night, door and window alarms that start at less than $50 can be installed on windows and doors, alerting others in the home. Similar alarms can be placed in beds or chairs or around toilets. Visit www.alzstore.com or www.telehealthsensors.com.
Camera-monitoring: The Virtually There Care Monitor, like others, allows loved ones to check in on seniors from miles away. Set up discreetly anywhere in the home, it can record videos at pre-set times or be programmed to allow live remote viewing through a password-protected website. Generally, the lens is trained on commonly-traveled areas of the home: hallways, living rooms or kitchens, for example, said Laura Seriguchi, director of business development for Guardian Medical Monitoring, which provides the monitoring.
"It's up (to) the consumer and family to determine which areas will be covered," she said.