These Smart Home Products Can Help Older People Live Independently

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More than anything else, smart home technology is about accessibility: Being able to control your home through your phone or voice means more people can live independently. The average age of Americans has risen to the highest it’s ever been, and our aging population is going to explode over the next 25 years. Smart home technology can help older folks stay in their homes longer.

Three challenges to using smart-home tech to age at home

There are two obstacles that smart tech will need to overcome to truly be part of the solution. The first is power. Smart systems don’t work without power (and to a lesser degree, internet, since they can utilize Bluetooth and local networks, even if not all do). If you’ve created an entire home that relies on smart tech, and then you lose power, you leave the dependent in arguably a worse place for the duration of the outage than they would have been without the assistant. Backup power solutions could be part of the solution, and companies like Jackery, EcoFlow and Solix are creating powerful whole home battery backup systems and subpanels that can be an essential part of the smart home. 

The second obstacle is the imperfection and fallibility of each individual product in the smart home. When I ask my floorbot to vacuum, it usually does the job without a problem. But it will eventually have a problem, so now I have a tripping hazard in the house—and one that, at an unwieldy 10+ pounds, can be hard for people with limited physical abilities to pick up. This problem is true for almost every product I can think of, and when the product is the hub itself, the problem multiplies. I rely on Alexa and Google every day, but at least 15% of my requests end in dead ends—the product is non-responsive or the assistant claims it can’t perform the action or just mishears me. Regardless of how far smart home technology has come, we’re still in its beginning phase. 

The final challenge is the eternal one: cost. Whether you are retrofitting a home or considering smart tech in the cost of new construction, it means additional financial burden on the family, making smart tech a privilege in an increasingly financially divided economy.

Still, if you can afford it, even piecemeal, smart tech can make extend the time someone can remain in their own home. 

Take full advantage of a voice assistant

The three major ecosystems, Homekit, Alexa and Google, all have voice assistants, with Samsung edging in as well. If you choose one and leverage that voice assistant and ecosystem, you can essentially control everything in your home, from the lights, to the security system, A/C and heating, to cleaning via robot vacuums and washing and drying machines all by simply asking your assistant for help. This can be extended to mowing the lawn, opening curtains, opening and closing doors, windows, garage doors and even remote starting your car. Heck, a self-driving car is an extension of your smart home. If I were trying to help an aging parent live independently, those are the products I’d consider.

First, choose an ecosystem from the four listed above (Google, Apple, Amazon and Samsung). Make sure you have a great signal throughout the home by extending the signal via wifi mesh  as needed. Next, install voice-assistant speakers throughout the house; since many of them are inexpensive, this is perhaps the cheapest part of the list. You want a voice assistant within earshot of your loved one (or barely tolerated one) at all times, ideally mounted to the ceiling or wall. Remember that Google assistant won’t call 911 (though you can set up a personal security check that will notify trusted contacts) or do so via associated Nest products. Siri will try, using the associated iPhone, and Alexa will only do so via an add-on service.

Start with major home systems, like utilities

You need to choose whether to add “smartness” to the startpoint or the endpoint. In other words, you can make the light switches smart or the lightbulbs themselves. You can make a humidifier smart by adding a smart outlet or plug, or just buy a smart humidifier. Consider that there are now several A/C and heating products with smart functionality, and even products to retrofit your A/C and heater to be smart. With the essentials out of the way, adding in smart home security via window and door sensors and a smart door lock make sense. A door that is unlocked by voice or keypad is less physically stressful than manipulating a key and you can’t lose or forget it. A video doorbell allows you to deal with people at your door without having to physically answer it and provides a layer of safety.

From there, you need to identify the routines that matter to the aging person and what products will make it easier to be sustainable. This can include a smart coffee maker or smart bird feeder; a smart oven or microwave; or even a smart indoor garden. 

Leverage cameras, sensors and automations to help and monitor remotely

The aspect I hadn’t previously considered was how these products can help people assist their aging family—for instance, using interior cameras to help communicate with a relative and monitor them.  Most indoor cameras we’ve reviewed include two-way communication; the pan-and-tilt models allow you to remotely access a full view of any room (assuming you’ve resolved the privacy issues between you and your kin). I also suggest adding in presence sensors, which can be set up to help identify if someone has fallen.  Use sensors to get a sense of the environment as well as to use as automation triggers.

Remember, automations mean that you can ask for notifications remotely of situations, rather than using them to just set up in-home actions. You can keep an eye on things remotely via these notifications. A phone is essentially a personal tag that can be used for location tracking and identification in automations. Use automations to notify you if your loved one hasn’t returned home by 11 pm or hasn’t gotten to the kitchen by 10 am, etc. 

Keeping health and medical needs on track

The recent boom in smart health products means you can also leverage tech to help people take care of themselves, and monitor it remotely. There are smart, automated pill dispensers, and Withings has developed an entire ecosystem of health products that are connected, from sleeping monitors to scales. Add in a smart watch and you can have an alert system for your family member’s health and safety. 

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