Technology and eldercare: Delivering much needed support

A close friend not long ago told me about how his father-in-law had to be taken to the emergency room at their local hospital because of suddenly intensified irrational behaviour caused by some form of suspected cognitive impairment.  Once diagnosed in the emergency room, his father-in-law was found to be sufficiently impaired to be admitted. My friend and his wife were very clear in warning hospital staff that the aging parent was prone to wandering and had to be watched closely. They were assured he would be.

Three hours later at four in the morning, my friend’s phone rang. It was the hospital. His father-in-law had vanished. No sight or sound of him. Lost. Not anywhere in the hospital or on the grounds. A search was launched. The 85-year old was found on a downtown street just before dawn in a hospital gown and his shoes, shuffling along and as amiable but confused as ever.

All ended well enough, but the lesson was blaring and profound: where were the safeguards, within the hospital, and attached to the patient? Aside from questions about access and egress safety precautions at all doors, more importantly is the question: if a patient is a known wanderer, why wasn’t a door alarm activating or tracking bracelet put on his wrist or leg?

Access remote medicine

My friend’s experience isn’t unique. It’s just the tip of the eldercare iceberg, because the challenges we face are substantial. But what we’ll face even more intensely will be way beyond anything that is evident to us now. The sheer numbers of aging Canadians will demand new ways to think about and apply both proactive and reactive health care solutions.

A key ingredient in those solutions will be technology-driven. It’s the only way we’ll be able to keep health care services even remotely affordable.

We’re already seeing what technology can offer in terms of telemedicine: accessing telephone-based medical information and support through various government systems. We in Canada are even seeing online medical procedures in the far north being performed or guided by specialists in major medical centres in the south of our country.

There’s no doubt more is coming in this area, but yet more is coming online now to help.

Getting engaged in ‘real time’

There are now systems available that allow for aging parents to have more independence and freedom, allowing their children and other caregivers to monitor and track their movements at home.

For example, for several years personal emergency alert systems have been available. Generally worn as a pendant, if an elderly person falls or feels ill, he or she can simply depress the button to either send an alarm or create a two-way communication with a monitoring service. They are ever more sophisticated and reliable.

Available also are remote blood pressure and diabetes monitors that will track and store a person’s status and, as needed, send that data back to the family physician for assessment and comment.

Now, more new monitoring systems are coming onto the market. One new such system is mydlink (see for details). It offers a remote monitoring service of the living space of elderly loved ones that is supposed to be seamless, secure and around the clock, without being intrusive.

Another relatively new and interesting remote system monitors aging parents’ status, daily activities, medication routines and appointments, and even provides a medical alert component. It’s a highly sophisticated yet affordable option that can help with eldercare remotely and 24/7. Called the Sonamba, there is more about it at

As well, there are electronic pill dispensers that monitor usage: invaluable for tracking how aging loved ones take their meds or don’t, allowing for remedial strategies to be developed.

Plus new wheelchair technology is offering more options and comfort; advances in motorized devices to help the elderly move more freely outdoors are creating yet more positive alternatives.

“We’re extending elder independence with new technology,” says David Rittenhouse, a certified professional consultant on aging whose prior career was steeped in the world of IT. He’s merged the two talents of IT and eldercare. Based in Victoria, we met recently and found much common ground in what technology can do now, and even more in the future.

What’s coming next?

Good question. Who really knows? The advancements, and the pace of advancements in technology are awesome to say the least.

Giving it a best guess, here are some of the tech-driven services I think are coming to us in the next years, in no particular order:

•    Elder-specific monitoring bracelets that continuously upload vital signs and current actual location.
•    Home systems that not only monitor an aging parent’s condition, but that will activate home cleaning operations (vacuums, dishwashers) and watch weather conditions and alert needs for snow clearing, grass watering, and such.
•    Remote medicine use tied to local pharmacies that ensure medications are being taken as they should, and refilled as needed.
•    Physical engagement programs that prompt aging loved ones to use custom-developed fitness apparatus and times actual usage.
•    Customized medications specifically tailored for the individual.
•    And, eventually, implanted programmed chips that allow our aging loved ones to see and hear the best of their pasts; to relive and again savour fond memories that all the more matter to them at this stage of their lives.

We’ve come so amazingly far in such a short period of time. What used to be critical surgery a few decades ago is now often an out-patient day procedure.

Just last week, a close family friend who is 87 years old got a knee replacement. It’s something that wouldn’t have been much an option 20 years ago. She’s coming along very well and with ongoing physio will be back walking in a few more weeks, already mobile with her walker.

Some years ago, my father was 90 years old when he had a good-sized chunk of his cancerous colon removed, and lived another nearly nine years as a result.

Both are beneficiaries of the miracles and marvels of medical and technological advancement.

As will be all of us. And as increasingly, are our elders.

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