By Cindy Erwin, B.S.

Media Marketing Specialist

VNA Plus Home Care & Hospice

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Several decades ago, science fiction writers predicted flying cars, colonies on Mars, and robots that would replace the human race by the 21st century. We haven’t quite achieved all of that, but what has become commonplace is technology that helps our aging population live safely and independently at home longer than previous generations. 

The technical revolution began more than 35 years ago with the development of a medical alert service that connected a subscriber with a professional responder 24 hours a day simply by pushing a button. These personal response systems have continued to evolve with new safety features, and most people are now very familiar with this equipment. Does anyone not know the famous line: “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up?”

Another technological advance involves medication dispensing. Medication errors harm more than 1.5 million people every year. To help prevent these errors, a machine can now be loaded with medications that are dispensed at pre-programmed times. The machine audibly reminds you that it’s time to take the dose, and it is even “smart” enough to contact a family member if you don’t take the medicine within a certain amount of time.

If you’re not comfortable with a machine, there are pill bottle caps that glow, play tunes, and send a signal to a phone bank that calls you — and eventually your caregiver — if you don’t open the bottle to take your meds. The caps are currently available for mail-order prescriptions and will be coming to local pharmacies in the near future.

Cell phones and GPS technology are continuing to advance, as well. The first “senior cell phone” featured user-friendly big buttons to make and receive calls. Its options now include motivational wellness messages, the opportunity to speak with an on-call nurse, and daily check-in calls. Likewise, GPS has expanded beyond vehicles to shoes. Donned by those coping with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, this special footwear can track movement and alert a caregiver if the wearer wanders outside a specified area.

Applications for mobile phones and tablets such as the iPad are also popping up to help seniors and their families live well. From newsreader services for those with low vision, to online tracking of appointments, to caregiver share sites where family members can be kept informed of their loved one’s needs, progress, and more … these devices are simplifying communications in ways never before imagined.

Finally, entire homes known as “granny pods” are being constructed with the latest technical advances that can monitor vital signs, filter the air for contaminants, use sensors to alert caregivers to problems, and allow inhabitants to communicate with the outside world via video and texting technology. These cottages also include lighted flooring, built-in cameras, and a defibrillator. Can a personal robot for housekeeping and other tasks be far behind?

Of course, “low-tech” options still have their place in keeping seniors safe. Just because they are not shiny and new, don’t discount the importance of things like grab bars, non-skid rugs, and even a shower curtain that prevents water from pooling on the floor and causing a fall. These can all make a difference in your quality of life and your ability to age successfully in place!

Cindy Erwin is a member of the planning committee for the annual Mid-America Institute on Aging, co-sponsored by the University of Southern Indiana and SWIRCA & More.