High-tech home help

By Charles Laurence

A new touch-screen system promises to revolutionise old age. It helps to keep older people in their own homes for longer by enabling family or carers to keep a loving eye on mum or dad from afar. Here’s where it all began...
Simple medical information goes into the system too, such as blood pressure monitoring results.Simple medical information, such as a blood pressure reading, can be entered into the system.

At about the time that Michael Murdock began to worry about his mother’s approaching old age, his eye was caught by a stand at a high-tech trade show. It was called GrandCare Systems. Murdock was in business fitting ‘smart’ automation technology to expensive homes – his was a company you called when you wanted to be able to set the swimming-pool temperature from your car, or watch the front gate with hidden cameras. Amid the gizmos and trade tools at the show, GrandCare seemed to be offering something a little different.

‘I thought “Wow”,’ he says. ‘Here was a company with the sort of technology I use, but adapted to help me look after my mum!’

What it was offering was a way of watching over a loved one with a minimum of intrusion and a maximum of communication. And it was easy to use.

The company, he learnt, was a pioneer in a field known as remote monitoring, which is now being recognised as a potentially crucial tool in the increasing demand for ‘elder care’. He bought the kit.

Last October, the company won a big US Innovation Entrepreneur Award, the citation lauding it for how it combined daily activities, health monitoring and social connection into one user-friendly system for older people.

Populations are ageing as people live longer, and the proportion of the retired to the working is ballooning. The baby-boomers are entering the autumn of their lives. This is compounded, in America more than anywhere, but in Britain too, by the separation of one generation from the next in a society of unprecedented mobility.

Murdock, 48, lives in Denver, Colorado. His mother, Elizabeth Roach, lives in Virginia, 1,600 miles away. People move away for new marriages, new opportunities or simply better weather. And the statistics in America are clear: by the time infirmity sets in, just one-third of the elderly are ‘in professional care’, while two-thirds are cared for primarily by family members.

Almost every older person declares two things: they want to stay in their own homes, and to avoid being a burden to their children. Reconciling the two desires is about to become one of the great projects of the age.

Murdock was thinking about this when he stopped at the stand. ‘My mum had only just turned 70 then, but my sister and I realised there were issues,’ he says. ‘She was alone and not doing well. Her weight was down to 7 stone 12lbs and she was becoming very negative.

‘And I felt guilty. Here I was hundreds of miles away and there was not much I could do. She had looked after me, and I felt it was my turn to look after her. No point in pretending: guilt is the word.’

Murdock packed all the kit into a duffel bag and flew to Virginia. However, he had some persuading to do. ‘Was I going to be watched by people from outer space?’ Mrs Roach remembers wanting to know. ‘I have lived in this house for more than 15 years, and there is nothing I value more than my independence, and my privacy. I was not going to give that up.’

Well, first of all, there are no cameras involved. All studies agree: monitoring systems can only work with the willing participation of the subject, and cameras are inevitably seen as an invasion of privacy.

Instead, Murdock went around her house fitting various types of discreet devices – sensors to record when outer doors opened; when his mother opened her medications cupboard; motion detectors to record which rooms she was using. One, slipped under the sheets, recorded bed times.

The system is programmed to send an alarm if, for instance, Mrs Roach fails to get out of bed one morning, or fails to open the cupboard to take her pills.

Simple medical information goes into the system too: Mrs Roach weighs herself daily, and the scales send in a signal. Blood pressure monitors, sugar-level recorders, finger clips that measure oxygen levels in the blood, and so on, are linked in as required.

All of the monitors feed wirelessly into the central touch-screen computer. The information goes to a database that can be accessed online by Murdock, his sister or another authorised carer. The system will work well with local at-home care providers, part of the network of people who can keep an eye on a potentially vulnerable householder.

‘So far, we’ve had only one reason for alarm and that was when Mom’s blood pressure shot up,’ says Murdock. ‘We talked on the phone, she went to see her doctor and the issue was taken care of before there was any need to rush her to hospital. I feel better being so much more in touch, and so does she.’

To Mrs Roach, one great benefit is that the system has brought her into the modern communication age. Its centrepiece is a large touch-screen computer, which is permanently linked into the internet. The screen displays a range of icons, resembling  a giant user-friendly ‘tablet’ – a device that it anticipated. There is no keyboard and no mouse. The user simply touches an icon on the screen, and up comes a whole range of services, from email to an automated call to the doctor’s surgery. Every touch screen comes complete with Skype or a similar online video-call system. ‘It’s a miracle, isn’t it?’ says Mrs Roach. ‘I’ve just had a new great-grandchild and I was able to see him on the screen just three hours after he was born. He was beautiful. I used to feel so out of touch.’

The current system is already light years from the prototype built by founder and CEO Charlie Hillman in the early Nineties. An engineer living in the small town of West Bend, Wisconsin, he was trying to solve a problem involving an ageing relative. Great Aunt Clara was living almost next door and was determined to stay there. He would pop round, and she would often join his family at the kitchen table.

She was in her eighties when one January day she called to tell him her house was very cold. He rushed around to find that a failing boiler in the basement had just filled the house with smoke. It could very well have been a fatal fire.

Hillman used his professional skills to build an elaborate system to monitor his aunt’s house so that never again would the temperature drop or the boiler catch fire without him knowing. He added bits and bobs as the years went by.

‘Clara’s no longer with us,’ says Hillman, ‘but you know what? She got to live her entire life where she wanted to… at home. Pretty good! I knew then that I had a system that could help others, too.’

He started to make and market a complete system seven years ago, setting up a new company, and believes the time has come for this kind of ‘assistive technology’.

‘We were pretty lonely out there at the trade shows and the markets from about 2005 to 2009,’ he says.

‘But then a few people recognised a potential, and now the idea of digital home-technology assistance has started to become mainstream. We are dealing with a huge disruptive demographic, the booming ageing population, which is growing exponentially.

‘Many of us will require some care as we age, and no country will be able to sustain our current models of care with healthcare staff and more bricks and mortar.

‘This is just another example of how technology can enable caregivers to be more effective, efficient and omniscient.

‘This will not only assist individuals who want to remain at home, but also help to virtually connect the generations. This combination of technology and care will be our only hope of avoiding bankrupting our children and grandchildren.’

No one pretends that technology can replace the human touch. Sons and daughters will still be needed, along with local paid help to support older people at home.

But the idea is that at-home assistive technology systems can help to keep older people contentedly staying in their own homes for as long as possible, and enable current services to be spread far wider for comparable costs.

Individuals can expect to pay less for the entire system than they would for just a few weeks in a care home.

Hillman explains that the initial idea of using the system to link an older person to their family is just a start. The key will be to use the technology to create networks. These are already forming, ranging from the self-motivated, privately funded communities pioneered by the Beacon Hill Village of Boston to an experiment by public health authorities in Hawaii, which is using GrandCare to link a scattered community of elderly people.

Hillman, who is steeped in the very American language of personal responsibility and business enterprise, sees three channels to the system. The first is for the individual to use medical monitoring to maintain their own health as well as possible, because good health saves money. ‘Ignorance’, he says, ‘is a bad strategy for health.’

The second is as a communication device, not just for personal use but as the matrix of a community in which concierge services can best be organised. These can be paid-for or volunteer-based. A healthy 68-year-old, he points out, could mow the lawn of an 80-year-old, who could cook a meal in return.

And the third is the most efficient way of getting professional services to the individual door.

‘Just adding à-la-carte bells and whistles is not going to get us anywhere,’ he says. ‘We need to build the technology to partner with the care agencies and communities that will be figuring out affordable ways to keep us healthy, content, and at home.’

Now Saga is bringing the system to the UK

Hi-tech home care system
Saga has been investigating GrandCare to develop a service for use by families in the UK.We are currently piloting it in 20 or so homes and aim to have our system available in parts of the UK in the first quarter of this year and nationally by the summer.

The UK version will have similar functionality to its American cousin, ie: a touch screen in your loved one’s home that allows them to:

  • See messages, photos and videos that you, or anyone authorised by you, send them
  • Make video calls (such as Skype)
  • Use websites that you set up for them – at the touch of a single button
  • See (and hear) medication reminders
  • Take readings of things such as weight, blood pressure or glucose levels and share them with the appropriate people.

The system can also record movement around the home and send alerts – such as a text message to tell the carer on the receiving end that, say, a back door has been opened after 10pm.
The system can be monitored using any device – a laptop, smart phone or iPad – so that family and carers can keep in touch wherever they are in the world.

Want to know more?

If you are potentially interested in using the system when it’s available, please email us at gcinfo@saga.co.uk.

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This article originally appeared in Saga Magazine . For more fascinating articles like this, delivered direct to your doorstep each month, subscribe today.

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