Smart homes make senior life easier

Wendy A Jordan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Terese Klitenic, 65, had two goals when she moved a few years ago to a townhouse in Waverly Woods, a 55-plus community in Marriottsville, Maryland.

One was to enjoy all that the active-adult community offers. The other was to prepare for a life of safety and comfort as the years go by.

Likewise, in Boca Raton, Florida, healthy octogenarians JT and Emily Galea wanted to prepare their one-storey house for the best life in their retirement.

Both homes incorporate essentials for safe senior living, including primary bedroom, bath and living spaces on one level; smooth floors (that would accommodate wheelchairs and rollators); good lighting; and kitchens, baths, laundry and storage areas designed for safe, convenient use.

But when it came to incorporating technology for ageing in place, the homeowners took very different approaches. Klitenic opted to start small, with a few tech tools. The Galea home is chock full of high-tech enhancements.

Supporting health, safety and security are important components of successfully ageing in place. So are home management systems that maintain a comfortable environment, and communication and recreation systems that enable social engagement, stimulation and entertainment.

JT controls the smart lights in the kitchen as his wife Emily Galea pours herself a glass of water. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
The Galea home is chock full of high-tech enhancements

Wanda Gozdz, president of Golden Age Living, is a residential interior designer and certified ageing-in-place specialist (CAPS) whose company provides CAPS training and services.

She said “ageing in place is the ability to remain in your home as your lifestyle changes over time.”

As CEO and co-founder of Tech-Enhanced Life, which has a website (techenhancedlife.com) and programmes to identify and evaluate tech products for seniors, Richard Caro said he sees ageing-in-place technology as a means to help people maintain the daily life they have long enjoyed. And while many tech systems are helpful, Caro notes that some issues can be handled by simple, low-tech devices. He likes jar openers, for example, because they enable people with weak or arthritic hands to continue enjoying their favourite jarred foods.

Klitenic said she wanted tech tools that would allow her to “live alone safely and enjoy movies and music and life in general”. Assisted by Zachary Klaiman of DC-based Ztech, a company that provides technology and support for seniors, she chose just three things: a Ring smart doorbell, some Roku devices and an Apple watch.

With a camera focussed on who’s near the front door and a chime that rings when people walk by, the doorbell “makes me feel secure”, she said. She already had a smart TV so she augmented two other sets with Roku devices to stream programmes and movies. As for additional tech products, she will consider them if and when she sees a need.

The Galeas decided a few years ago to transition from their large, two-storey home to a smaller, one-storey place. They bought a 1,700-square-foot, two-bedroom house in a 55-plus community convenient to where two of their children live. After a three-month remodel, they moved into the house last March.

They made the structure accessible by raising the floor of the sunken living room to the same level as the rest of the space, installing a curbless shower, replacing the kitchen cabinet shelves with pullout units and adding handrails to the bathrooms. Strategically located lighting, including LEDs, task lights and under-cabinet strips, brightens work zones and makes passageways safe to navigate.

JT and Emily’s son Jeff designed the tech side of the remodel. He is CEO and founder of Boca Tech and Automation, a company that integrates smart technology into homes. Starting with the floor plan and a discussion with his parents about their daily living routines, Jeff developed a comprehensive system that reflects how they use the space, lending safety and convenience to their everyday lives.

The tech is tied into a central Control4 system, said JT, “so we can control the whole house from anywhere, from our iPads, smartphones and touch panels”. Included are automated and scheduled lighting, motorised window shades, motion sensor lights, security cameras at the front door and around the house, sensors that detect open windows and doors, motion-activated driveway and garage lighting, automatic operation of the front door, a smart thermostat, music, and WiFi.

The system is integrated with third-party devices that JT can use to read his blood pressure and heart rate and transmit the results to his doctor.

The Galeas use a jumbo-size, 120-inch front projection TV to enjoy movies, TV shows and games as well as video calls with family and friends. Equipment can be attached to the base of the screen that allows a sound bar and camera to track to the person in the room who is speaking.

Smaller screens in JT’s home office, in Emily’s quilting studio and in Jeff’s business office (for remote access) show live camera shots from security cameras around the property.

JT and Emily were relatively comfortable bringing tech into their home, because JT has work experience in the tech arena and because of Jeff’s role as project coordinator. But most homeowners in their age group are not.

“Older older adults” – those over 75, who did not grow up with computers, smartphones and other devices – “are most likely to approach technology with trepidation”, said Executive Director of the LeadingAge Centre for Aging Services Technologies Madj Alwan. Coming behind them are groups with more tech experience. “In five years, retirees will be much more familiar with tech,” Alwan said.

For now, many older homeowners need help through the whole process, from choosing tech systems to setting up and using them. They often get it from young people, especially family members. Klitenic relies on her daughter and son, quipping, “If my kids aren’t available, I’m clueless.”

Getting used to employing all the tech in the Galea house was an adjustment for Emily.

“There is a learning curve,” she said, but “I grew into it. If people can use a smartphone, they’ll catch onto this easier. The biggest hurdle for me was learning the new touch screen, learning the sequence, the dashboard. It took a couple of weeks of trial and error. When I got really stuck I called my husband or one of my children.”

Service providers such as Klaiman offer installation and user assistance, too. “Finding Zach was a godsend,” Klitenic said. Klaiman, 28, uses the company tagline, “I taught my Grandma, and I can teach you.”

“A big part of helping people is being there while they practise” using the systems and “teaching them how to troubleshoot,” Klaiman said. “I walk them through the process slowly and patiently. I understand that this stuff is scary, intimidating and frustrating for a lot of older people. They say, ‘I’m stupid,’ but I tell them that I get why they’re this way. I instill confidence that they can do it.”

When they gain trust in their ability to use and troubleshoot the technology, “it’s crazy empowering,” he added.

Klaiman backs up the training with written, step-by-step instructions. He remains available to help remotely or in person. Gozdz provides a “cheat sheet” to her clients as well, and encourages them to call with questions. It’s not unusual for tech companies to offer service contracts on installed products, said Gozdz. Boca Tech and Automation has one that includes regular preventive maintenance as well as problem-solving.

It’s wise to work with experts in ageing-in-place technology. Klaiman has IT support certification from Google and is earning certification from Apple.

Through her DC company Living at Home Consultations, occupational therapist Tori Goldhammer enables people to continue living safely in their homes. She has certifications in home modifications, ageing in place and fall prevention, as well as credentials as an assistive technology practitioner.

She recommended tech products that would be useful to homeowners, but also is “mindful of what they can handle”. As for setting up tech equipment, choose a contractor experienced in smart home installation.

And “caregivers who have experience with technology are essential for the implementation and ongoing success of using tech systems,” said Community Living Programme Manager for the Howard County Office on Ageing and Independence Carly Shilling.

“Technology is the ultimate ageing-in-place asset if you use it correctly,” said Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP. “It brings safety, convenience, peace of mind – and a fun factor.” Technology helps all homeowners, but especially seniors, by automating “things that are a pain or difficult to do”, said Michael Miller, author of My Smart Home for Seniors.

Tech advances also allow caregivers outside the house to monitor and provide support remotely.

Miller said some tech systems can be hard to use and troubleshoot, though “it’s easier now than four or five years ago”.

Alwan sees significant improvement, too. The voice control processing is more natural now, he said, and touch-screen devices are easier to use. “Tech has gotten radically more intuitive,” Kamber said, adding that most devices now are user-friendly.

Kamber warned that homeowners could encounter problems if they buy “lower-cost knockoffs that may come with design or interconnectivity flaws”.

Advances in tech are a two-edged sword, said Alwan. “The smarter it is, the better it knows you and predicts your habits.” That’s helpful. But it also raises concerns about potential privacy and security risks. The trade-off, Alwan said, is between convenience and security.

He doesn’t think homeowners should worry. “You are in control of your privacy,” he said.

Turn off the microphone on your smart speaker, for instance, when you don’t plan to use it.

“Know the risks and mitigate for them,” said Alwan, then “reap the benefits of smart home technology.”