Caregiving Technology Offers Safety, Security and Peace of Mind

by Miriam Davidson on Mon, 2010-11-01 14:27
A woman with a traumatic brain injury converses with a remote caregiver from Rest Assured.

In most respects, Home Helpers operates like a traditional care agency. It recruits and screens trained caregivers to go into people’s homes, and help them bathe, dress, eat, cook, clean and do laundry. Its staffers run errands, go shopping and take clients to their doctor appointments.

Remote caregivers from Rest Assured monitor clients by video camera, and alert neighbors or family members if something is amiss.

Yet, in a couple of crucial respects, Home Helpers is different from most. When a caregiver arrives at a client’s house, the caregiver must use the client’s phone to call into an automated system that records that the caregiver is on the job. When the caregiver leaves, he or she calls in again, and the machine records that as well. The supervisor of each local Home Helpers agency can tell by a glance at a computer who’s on duty and who’s not.

Home Helpers is one of a number of caregiving agencies that is incorporating technology into its services, both to provide better care and to enhance the peace of mind of family members who may be living in another state or simply work across town.

Some of these agencies monitor clients with cameras; others use a variety of sensors to record when someone gets out of bed, uses the bathroom, opens the fridge, turns on the stove, leaves the house or other activities. Although in many states unlicensed professional caregivers aren’t allowed to dispense medications, Home Helpers provides an automated dispenser (prefilled by a licensed staffer) that chimes when it’s time to take pills, and the service provider makes sure that happens.

While using technology to provide care raises some concerns about privacy and confidentiality — not to mention concerns about the loss of  “human touch” — these services are quickly gaining popularity.

Personality matching

James and Denise Reihl
James and Denise Reihl

James Reihl, 48, of Tucson, received an ALS diagnosis in 2008 and, until recently, had been employing Home Helpers to assist him at his job at IBM. (He has since retired on disability.) Reihl’s wife, Denise, says she appreciated the technology aspects of the service — in particular, the personality matching that was done by computer to select the right caregiver for her husband.

“Home Helpers has been very kind, very professional,” Denise says. “They are very good at finding the right people and making sure the personalities mesh.”

To do so, Home Helpers combines technology with a human touch. Home Helpers owners visit the homes of potential clients and assess their needs, situation and personality, then enter that information into a computer which, if desired, can select the proper caregiver and arrange the schedule. To facilitate communication between clients and their families, Home Helpers contracts with a caregiving website called Generations Unite, which, like MDA’s myMuscleTeam (see below), offers a variety of care coordinating services.

Other tech-oriented care agencies are more hands-off. ResCare’s Rest Assured system monitors individuals needing care by camera. If the human monitors — who may be thousands of miles away — see something amiss, they alert a neighbor or family member.

Still other agencies use wired and wireless sensors, rather than cameras, to keep tabs on the activities of the person needing care. BeClose and GrandCare are two such agencies. They offer a variety of systems by which a person can be independent yet “watched” to make sure they’re safe and sound.

A tool for families

“We don’t have caregivers,” says Laura Mitchell, director of business relations for GrandCare. “We are a tool for families or care partners to take care of their own.”

Most telemergency alert devices contain a very sensitive receiver/transmitter that can pick up a person's voice throughout the house in case of emergency.

GrandCare provides a spectrum of tech caregiving services, including motion detectors, monitoring daily activities such as bathing and eating, health checks (with Bluetooth-enabled scales and blood pressure devices) and communication.

GrandCare helps clients stay in touch with loved ones through Skype (a free two-way video chat computer program) that has been set to start at the push of a button. Clients also may stay in contact with doctors and other medical professionals through Skype.

Studies show that people who are elderly or disabled much prefer to stay in their own homes rather than in an institution, even at the price of some loss of privacy. The trend toward tech caregiving is consistent with that desire, as it enables people to remain independent as long as possible while still ensuring their health and safety.

In-home care isn’t cheap. GrandCare charges between $200 and $400 a month for its service, plus installation; Home Helpers cost between $18 to $22 an hour, or more. But it still is less expensive than assisted living or nursing homes.

MedicTag is a computer memory stick that contains a user's vital medical information. First responders can download the stick's information to a computer.

Emergency calls

All of the remote caregiving services mentioned in this article provide an emergency-call service from a device that can be worn around the wrist or neck. Typically, the response center is staffed 24 hours a day, and when an alert signal comes in, the operator starts calling people on a list preselected by the client.

These emergency call services are also available by themselves, from companies such as Medical Guardian, Medical Alert and Philips Lifeline, for about $50 or $60 a month. Some of these devices don’t even need to be pushed to activate a call; they can sense when a person has fallen. They also may be able to relay your medical information to whomever is receiving the call.

For more details about emergency call services and a list of resources, see the July-Sept. 2010 Quest magazine article “Call for Help.”

Do-it-yourself caregiving tech

For those who don’t have the money or the inclination to hire a care service, there are several lower-cost options for do-it-yourself caregiving tech.

Cameras and motion detectors can keep tabs on loved ones discreetly.

Simple webcam from Logitech.

Several free or low-cost caregiving apps (applications) are available for iPhones. Apps such as CareConnector, Caregiver’s Touch and RxmindMe allow users to store insurance and emergency contact information, schedule caregivers, track prescriptions and prescription history, share stories and tips with other caregivers, and write down questions and take notes during doctor's appointments.

These apps are similar to myMuscleTeam, a free online care coordination service available on the MDA website. Users can create their own private, secure Web pages to keep friends and family members up to date, as well as to recruit and schedule assistance with caregiving tasks.

When a caregiver lives in the same house or close by, other tech options include intercoms (from office systems to baby monitors) and “nanny cams.” These range from a simple, USB-connected webcam for about $30; to a wireless camera that can be placed almost anywhere for less than $200; to a complete, computer-based system for less than $1,000.

Many websites offer a variety of in-home surveillance cameras, including some disguised as teddy bears, plants, smoke detectors and other objects. Since secrecy is not the purpose here — good caregiving is — it’s important to let people know they’re being videotaped. (Studies have found that most people object to being spied on, but will accept being videotaped if they understand it is for their safety.) Also, be forewarned that it is illegal in 15 states to make audio recordings of people without their knowledge.

For those with webcams on their computers, Skype video chat — in which both parties can see and hear each other — is free and can be an excellent tool for families to check in on distant loved ones. Skype also can be used to make standard voice phone calls, but keep in mind that it can’t be used to call 911.

Tech doctor visits

As part of the trend toward caregiving tech, more medical personnel are using technology to monitor and communicate with their patients. Electronic stethoscopes, glucometers, respirometers, pulse oximeters and vital sign sensors are among the medical devices that can be monitored remotely by doctors and nurses.

The Japanese caregiving robot Wakamaru is three feet tall, with voice-recognition software and cameras for eyes. It costs about $14,000.

The practice of “telemedicine” is still in its infancy, and questions of confidentiality, privacy, computer security, licensing and legal liability remain to be worked out. But since remote visits are potentially faster, cheaper, easier and just as thorough as in-person visits, this trend is likely to continue to grow.

The future

With its rapidly aging population and love of high-tech gadgetry, Japan is leading the way in developing service robots and other futuristic caregiving technologies.

One Japanese robot, called Wakamaru, is 3 feet tall with cameras for eyes; it has voice-recognition software, and if it doesn’t hear a response to its preprogrammed reminder to take medication (for example), it will relay that fact to a call center, triggering a personal visit. Other Japanese caregiving robots include pets (which also can serve monitoring functions) and a nurse able to lift more than 130 pounds. Under development is a bed that on command can transform itself into a joystick-controlled wheelchair.

A variety of iPhone apps for caregivers are listed at: www.caregiving.com/201/06/iphone-apps-for-caregivers

Caregiving coordination websites include: www.mda.org/myMuscleTeam and www.generationsunite.com/Public/Home.aspx

Nanny cams: www.logitech.com/en-us/webcam-communications/webcams is one of the many websites offering video surveillance cameras; they also can be purchased at electronics stores.

Emergency call pendants and bracelets are available at www.medicalalert.com, www.medicalguardian.com and www.lifelinesys.com.

An extensive article about emergency call services, including contact information for several different types, can be found in “Call for Help” in the July-Sept. 2010 issue of MDA’s Quest magazine.

To listen to the National Public Radio series “Wired Homes Keep Tabs on Aging Parents,” go to www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129104664

Skype can be downloaded for free at www.skype.com.

High-tech in-home care: Home Helpers: www.homehelpers.cc or (800) 216-4196 

GrandCare: www.grandcare.com or (262) 338-6147

BeClose: www.beclose.com or (866) 574-1784

Rest Assured: www.restassuredsystem.com or (877) 338-9193

Miriam Davidson
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