Tips & Advice

How tech can help elders improve their quality of life

David Strom, 27 March 2020

Learn how to make technology work for the elderly member of your family as they live independently.

If you are 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 independently. We all need help as we get older, and I write this column based on the experience of my 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:

  • 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.)
  • BlipCare BP blood pressure monitor (We bought it on Amazon for $159, although it currently is no longer being sold there.)
  • And an Amazon Alexa Show 5 ($89) or 8 (for $129) (These are list prices and are discounted heavily for various promotions.)

The three devices allow us to ensure we can reliably dispense her meds, take her blood pressure, and talk to her when we aren’t able to visit. I’ll explain the limitations and decisions behind each piece of technology. When we brought all this gear into the facility, the medical staff was impressed and also unfamiliar with each of them, which motivated my purpose in writing this column. 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.

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 Wifi 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.

The Alexa 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 and have a video chat, 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. And it helps that the Alexa show is very simple to use. You do need a smartphone app to make the call. A second benefit of the Alexa-brand of devices is that they have a better event notification process. That is useful for verbal reminders of daily events. Other home hubs, such as 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.) BTW, we have had mixed success with her giving Alexa voice commands. You might want to try out one of these devices in your own home with your elderly family member and see how it goes.

The Blipcare device is a bit quirky to setup. It uses its own web server and has alarmingly lax security, but what is nice is that you don’t need anything else to record her 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 share with doctors. If you have two family members to care for, it can track their stats separately.

Finally, the Hero device is used to dispense her 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, similar to how a soda machine dispenses its product. You set up a schedule and which pills get dispensed when.

The notion of having these three devices is to postpone having nursing care or other options for my mother-in-law. While these devices aren’t cheap, using them for several months can have a big payback given what the step-up nursing care charges would be. And they also offer a sense of security for our family. While for our situation the devices involve us in her care, your own family situation might not make this possible or desirable. And like any home tech, you have to be prepared to do some tech support to handle problems.

I have been using a different device to monitor my own blood pressure, the Qardio Arm ($99). It requires a bluetooth connection to a smartphone to post its results and is somewhat difficult for an elderly person to put over their arm and get it aligned in just the right spot for accurate measurements. I have been using 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.