Surveillance Tech Wirelessly Watches Over Older Parents

Video cameras, sensors help care for aging parents remotely.

Aug. 25, 2010— -- For 74-year-old Carol Brewer, welcoming a video camera into her living room wasn't easy.

She said she'd walk through her own home and wonder, "Am I dressed appropriately?"

But over time, she said, she grew accustomed to the little grey globe in the corner of the room and now credits it, in part, with helping her and her 78-year-old husband Ross, who is paralyzed from the waist down, continue to live in their Lafayette, Ind., home on their own.

"It bothered me a little," she said. "But now I don't worry about it."

That's because during the past two years, the surveillance camera and the other wireless sensors scattered around the Brewers' home have allowed "telecaregivers" to help the couple avert emergency time and again.

If Carol Brewer falls, she can press a button affixed to a chain around her neck and immediately reach a caregiver on the phone. If a door is left ajar or unlocked, she gets a phone call alert.

Majority of People Want to Age at Home, Experts Say

She said she recently received a call when sensors picked up on the fact that their house was too warm.

"I had my oven on. That's how quickly they pick up on these things," she said. "They've thought of so many things I wouldn't think of normally. It's been wonderful for us."

And the Brewers aren't alone. A growing group of aging Americans are inviting sophisticated surveillance technology into their homes so they can continue to live independently.

"I think a lot of older people have a problem with it because of the whole Big Brother controversy," said Julie Davis, chief content officer for the online senior care resource ParentGiving. "I think you can get over that reluctance with the right conversation with your parents, by explaining that these are the steps that you can take to enable them to get what they really want, which is staying in their home, not moving to another facility where someone would monitor them all the time."

About 90 percent of people, when polled, say they want to live and ultimately die in their homes, she said, but as people live longer, that's not possible without help.

Telecaregiving Services Are 'Eyes' and 'Ears' for Families

Especially as healthcare costs climb and the economy falters, technology-enabled senior care increasingly offers an attractive option, Davis said.

An assisted-living facility can cost up to $80,000 a year and salaried home caregivers can also be pricey. By contrast, experts say telemonitoring services can range from less than $100 to about $1,000 a month.

"[It's] a way to have some eyes and ears on a loved one, when you yourself can't be there," Davis said.

The "eyes" and "ears" that watch over the Brewers belong to trained caregivers at ResCare, a Louisville, Kentucky-based company that provides residential care services to the elderly and people with disabilities.

Through its Rest Assured program, which was developed with the Purdue University School of Technology, the company remotely monitors about 300 clients across the country.

Dustin Wright, the general manager for Rest Assured, said the company works very closely with clients and their families to determine exactly what is needed.

Sensors Monitor Motion, Pressure, Temperature

"[We] get to know the needs of the client -- medical needs, personal safety risks, do they have dementia and, if so, what are some of the signs of that and how do we care for that person. What are the instructions for caring for that person," he said.

Then the company installs a variety of sensors around the home. On average, he said they install one to two video cameras per client (though some require as many as four). They also configure five to 15 sensors that can monitor motion, pressure, temperature and other kinds of information.

Some clients need 24-hour active monitoring via video camera, others just want daily virtual "drop-ins" to make sure they're taking their medication or haven't encountered any problems.

Wright said that some clients don't need daily telecaregiving services at all, they just want an emergency watch program that alerts the company when a sensor detects danger or an unusual event.

"The basic premise is an event happened and someone needs to know about it or an event didn't happen and someone needs to know," said Jason Ray, vice president of Simply Home, which also offers telemonitoring services.

Remote Monitoring Comforts Families

He said his company provides a range of options for clients and can tailor specific programs to meet their needs.

For example, Ray said, they had a South Carolina family ask for a snapshot every time the backdoor to their mother's house opened. So they devised a system whereby a sensor monitors the door and automatically e-mails the son and daughter a picture of anyone that enters.

Jeff Brewer, Carol and Ross Brewer's son, said the remote monitoring program lets him check in on his parents from anywhere in the world.

"I can pull up the camera and talk to them," said Brewer, 51, who is an information technology professor at Purdue University. "[I can] see their posture or how they're reacting to a question."

The telemonitors hired to check in on his parents can only activate the video camera twice a day, but he said he can watch the streaming video any time of day.

If his mother leaves the house to run an errand, he said, he can turn on the camera to make sure his father, who uses a wheelchair, is fine on his own.

"It's comforting to know that I can check on him when I know that he's there all by himself," he said.

But the surveilled say the technology-enabled intrusions sometimes take some getting used to.

Each night at 8:30 p.m., Carol said, a telemonitor activates the video camera and asks her a series of questions to make sure she and her husband are set for the night.

"I knew they had to do it and I knew it was a good idea but sometimes I thought, 'It's none of your business,'" she said. "But most of the time I understood."

And, she added that the technology can also introduce an element of fun.

"I'm able to do some ironing and one of the guys who calls knows I hate to iron and he laughs and says, 'I see the old ironing board out,'" she said. "We joke around."