3 smart devices to improve elder care

David Strom 28 Jan 2021

These gadgets can assist in the ongoing care of your elderly family members

If you're supporting an elderly member of your family, you might be interested in a collection of home tech devices that can help extend their ability to live more safely and independently. We all need help as we get older, and I write this column based on the experience of my own family and caring for my 95-year-old mother-in-law.

She has been living independently for the past 18 months using these three technologies:

  • An Amazon Echo Show: The Echo Show 5 goes $89 and the Show 8 for $129. (These are list prices and are discounted heavily for various promotions.)

  • A Blipcare BP blood pressure monitor: We bought it on Amazon for $159.

  • A Hero automated pill dispenser: It now costs at least $30 per month with a $100 initial purchase and 12-month commitment. There are other plans that cost more and provide additional monitoring and support.

The three devices allow us to ensure that we can reliably dispense her meds, take her blood pressure, and talk to her when we aren’t able to visit. I’ll soon explain the limitations and decisions behind each piece of technology.

When we brought all this gear into my mother-in-law's medical facility, the staff was impressed and also unfamiliar with each of them, which motivated my purpose in writing this post. Note that my mother-in-law lives independently in an eldercare facility, although step-up care is available in other parts of her building. This is a common arrangement.

Further reading:
Tech can help us protect seniors (without them feeling old)

Each device works with its own smartphone app to set up, but not to use that is an important distinction, as my mother-in-law doesn’t have a smartphone. They also all require decent Wi-Fi service in her room, which could be an issue in some facilities. (This means that you should test the signal strength in your family member’s room ahead of time.) All three units sit nestled together on her desk, which is also important, and I will get to why in a moment.

First up: The Amazon Echo Show

The Echo Show is a voice-activated home hub device, similar to what Google and Apple sell with one difference: it has a very simple video conferencing setup. The video screen (either five or eight inches on the diagonal) is critical, because it allows us to “drop in” on her, have a video chat and see what she is doing. This is critical during the pill-taking and blood pressure processes, which is why all three devices are near each other on her desk, and also used to contact her in case we can’t reach her on her cell phone.

It helps that the Echo Show is very simple to use. You do need a smartphone app to make the call. A second benefit of Amazon's Alexa line of devices is that they have a better event notification process. This comes in handy for verbal reminders of daily events. Other home hubs, such as those from Apple or Google, aren’t as convenient or as capable in this regard. (Also, Facebook has its Portal, but I haven’t tried it out yet.) It's worth noting that we have had mixed success with her giving Alexa voice commands. You might want to first try out one of these devices in your own home with your elderly family member and see how things go.

Blipcare's blood pressure monitor

The Blipcare device is a bit quirky to set up. It uses its own web server and has questionable security infrastructure, but what is nice is that you don’t need anything else to record blood pressure once you get it working. Results are automatically posted within a few minutes to a special dashboard webpage that family members can check periodically and also share with doctors. If you have two family members to care for, the Blipcare monitor can track their stats separately.

A side note: I've been using a different device to monitor my own blood pressure, the Qardio Arm ($99). It requires a Bluetooth connection to share its results, and it could be somewhat difficult for an elderly person to correctly put on themselves in order to get accurate measurements. In any case, I have been using this one for many years. And although have had to replace two of the devices, the company quite willingly sent me these replacements at no charge.

A solution for automated pill dispensing

Finally, we use the Hero device to automatically dispense my mother-in-law's pills. It needs to be periodically loaded with them, of course, but it is basically very simple to use my mother-in-law just presses a button, and the pills drop down into a cup. You set up a schedule and configure which pills get dispensed when.

The notion of having these three devices is to postpone the need for nursing care for my mother-in-law. While these devices aren’t cheap, using them for several months can have a big payoff, especially compared to what the step-up nursing care prices would be.

Importantly, these devices also offer a sense of security for our family. But be prepared: as with any home tech, you should be prepared to do some tech support to handle problems as they arise.

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