For the elderly, smart homes mean the promise of more freedom

While not a panacea, new technologies promise to enable the elderly to stay in their homes longer and more safely

It’s easy to forget that home automation is about more than just gadgets. After all, almost every product you can think of is getting the smart home treatment—from the highly useful, such as automated locks, to the slightly less necessary: smart fridges that solve the formidable problem of telling you when you’re out of milk. But for the elderly, smart tech means more than just a few new toys. It holds the promise of autonomy—being able to stay in homes longer and more safely, which can be completely game-changing.

Institutional elderly care, as it currently stands, is imperfect at best. Most pressingly, it’s not affordable. HUD reports that costs for elderly care can range anywhere from $900 to over $5,000 per month. But for all that money, it’s not really all that effective, either. Initial studies indicate that staying in the home—or aging in place, as it’s called—results in remarkably better health outcomes than moving to a care facility, especially when it comes to cognitive ability and depression rates.

However, the elderly obviously face challenges that inhibit independent living. Access to emergency care is a priority, of course, but even rote tasks like washing and bathing pose difficulties for elderly facing mobility issues. Meanwhile, the aging may be dealing with cognitive challenges that make day to day activities difficult, if not unsafe. Smart technology promises assistance in the form of data mining and monitoring—”learning” objects that are able to distinguish between usual behavioral patterns and an accident, and can alert healthcare providers in the event of the latter.

Creating a connected home

While individual devices demonstrate great promise for elder care safety and quality of life, the smart home’s current limitation—an issue that affects all age groups—is that there is no ideal unified system of control. Selecting a home hub device means navigating a list of supported products and systems, a difficult feat for someone not at ease with technology.

Even Apple’s HomeKit, which promises to connect a jumble of different products, requires downloading and installing a manufacturer app for each appliance or device. And in the hands of an older person, that difficulty might be more than an annoyance—it might be a barrier to entry. Developers who hope to assist the aging must concentrate on simplicity rather than customization—and having an exceptionally user-friendly app will likely make the difference here.

That’s how the technology stands in its current iteration.  The dream is that the hardware in appliances will one day allow communication without the help of a human aide. You can imagine the potential of that sort of technology for the elderly. For instance, a patient in the early phases of dementia wouldn’t need to worry about leaving the stove on—motion sensors installed in the space could detect when a home was empty and shut dangerous devices off.

In that scenario, one imagines a world where merely speaking to a device could spur it into action, rather than tapping away at a smart phone (even if Siri can be integrated using HomeKit, it still requires the push of a button). For someone with arthritis or bad eyesight or any other number of health issues, that would make for a vital difference.

Those improvements would make daily life easier for the elderly, but what about preventing or managing emergency situations? Environmental sensors are the proposed solution.

Researchers at Washington State University have been working on what they call a “smart environment,” their focus being on providing caretakers with data about residents’ movements and actions. Everything, from a walk to the kitchen to a patient’s water usage, could be tracked and mined by sensors installed throughout the dwelling.

Eventually the developers imagine the technology being thorough enough to sense whether or not a resident has taken medications. This level of monitoring would require a slew of devices—pressure-sensing floors, smart furniture, and medical sensors, for instance, in addition to integrated appliances—and would require devices to be smart enough to interpret context at a highly nuanced level. While certainly not impossible, considering the current difficulties home automation is having with connectivity, it seems unlikely that we’ll see this high level of technology retrofitted to homes with existing smart appliances anytime soon.

Robotics as a solution to elder care

Automation systems in the homes of the elderly would still put strain on the medical field—they’d need a health aide or caretaker on standby in order to function. Robotic aides, however, may present an interesting option. Aides are already being tested and used in Europe and in Japan, where trained health care providers and facilities are struggling to keep up with rapidly aging populations.

In some cases, these robot workers would even integrate with smart home systems. Assistants currently being developed in Sweden, for instance, can interpret data from environmental sensors that monitor inhabitants’ movements, blood pressure and sugar levels, as well as temperature and humidity. Integrating medical and activity monitoring seems like the next logical step for devices intended for vulnerable populations—a system that could not only be alerted if a resident fell, but also if they were in danger of a heart attack. Here again, it’s the connectivity that is the missing ingredient—motion and bio sensors, appliances, and robots all need to be able to communicate with one another and interpret data in a way that makes sense.

Additionally, AI developers are hoping their programming and devices may not only prove beneficial for their owners’ health and safety, but that they’ll ease symptoms of dementia, too.  It’s been shown that daily conversation, even online, can lessen cognitive decline. Bots may never be able to replace the warmth of the human touch, but with health care centers increasingly cash-strapped and limited by fewer resources, they can provide a level of attention elderly residents might not receive otherwise. Even skeptical caretakers have come around after seeing the difference they can make in their patients’ lives.

Looking even further into the future, it’s possible that robotics could change how elderly residents get around. Hybrid Assistive Limb technology, a sort of cyborg wearable that takes its cues from electrical signals transmitted through the skin, could help aged and other less-mobile populations move more freely and accomplish high-strength tasks. If a technology like that were to be developed, telepathic controls seem like the next logical development, and the possibility of one day manipulating your fridge or your doors with your thoughts becomes a little more plausible and a little less sci-fi. In the meantime, however, we’re bound to witness the rise of the smart home, and along with it, the acceleration of connectivity and context-aware devices that will rocket the aging population into the future.

Bryn Huntpalmer is a mother of two young children living in Austin, Texas where she currently works as an editor forModernize. In addition to regularly contributing to home remodeling and design websites around the web, her writing can be found on Lifehacker and

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.