Smart Home for Seniors: What, Why?

Smart home for Seniors

 

We have started to see the term "smart home for seniors" mentioned in the media recently.

What is a "Smart Home for Seniors", we wondered? And how is it different from a normal smart home? And who would want one, and why?

And, can you just get some specific smart home features relevant to you — in your current house? Or do you need a whole new house?

 

 

Overview

We set out to explore these questions, and concluded that there are indeed some specific "smart home features" that are especially useful for situations in which some older adults find themselves. 

As we dug into this topic, we decided we think of a smart home not as a specific "thing", but rather as a set of specific "solutions to problems". 

In many cases, we decided that you can implement these solutions one at a time as the problems occur — in your current house.

So, if some of the problems we discuss here are ones relevant to you or a family member, you do NOT necessarily need a whole new house, or a costly, whole-house "smart home implementation".

Some examples of situations / challenges for which we found useful smart home "solutions":

  • making it easier to compensate for physical frailties such as arthritis, mobility challenges, tremor, or poor hearing;
  • enabling people with cognition impairments to function independently for longer, or in more situations;
  • helping alleviate social isolation or loneliness;
  • making the task of "caregiving" more effective and or easier for the caregiver;
  • improving "safety and security".

In this article we share what we have learned, and describe some of the specific life situations / challenges likely to be of special relevance to older adults, and for which smart home solutions are, or should be, available.

This work is based on our own experience implementing smart home features for relatives, and is part of Tech-enhanced Life's ongoing coverage (see the Topic Hub: Smart Home, Artifical Intelligence, Robots).

 

Table of Contents

 

 

 

What is a Smart Home?

The phrase "Smart Home" seems to mean different things to different people. Here is what we think it means or should mean.

We think it works best to think in terms of "Smart Home Features" rather than a smart home. 

According to our way of thinking, any time a home gets some type of "intelligence" incorporated into some aspect of it, it gets a "smart home feature". A smart home feature is any aspect of a home — usually involving some type of gadget or appliance — that incorporates some level of automation or programmable behavior. Smart home features also often include some aspect of "connectivity" — either to the outside world, or to other elements in the house.

Here is a specific example to illustrate how we think of a smart home feature.

 

Examples: The Thermostat. Automated Watering.

An automatic thermostat, which is a feature in many or most homes, can be programmed to turn the heat down at night and up in the day. We think that qualifies as a basic "smart home feature".

In the last few years, a newer category of smart thermostats have emerged that also connect to the Internet, can be programmed from far away, and in some cases can automatically learn your presence and absence and adjust accordingly. These are "smarter" thermostats.

Another example of a smart home feature in widespread use is programmable watering / irrigation systems.

You can see from this that basic smart home features are already very widespread and need not be all that sophisticated.

 

Emerging "Smarter" Capabilities

But, the reason smart home features are especially interesting today, and especially interesting for older adults, is that it is now possible to find much more complex and sophisticated smart home features. These "smarter" home features typically leverage advances in connectivity and artifical intelligence.

They include solutions in areas like the following:

  • voice activated "almost anything";
  • remote control of many things;
  • automation of things that previously required manual operation — like lighting, or window coverings; 
  • consumerization of features like "cameras anywhere";
  • inexpensive sensors for many things — such as water leak detection, or air quality monitoring;
  • embedded artificial intelligence which can "learn" from past events and react accordingly (still not very advanced but improving rapidly);
  • technology to facilitate "virtual interactions" with friends and family.

If you put your mind to it, you can leverage these technologies to automate or program almost anything in the home you can imagine.

But, to us the big question is not "what can you do"? But, rather "what is actually useful, and to whom, and why?"

That's what the rest of this article is about.

 

 

 

How Is a Smart Home for Seniors Different?

We think the idea of a smart home for seniors is a flawed concept.

It suggests that because you turn 65 there are automatically "features" or "needs" that you have. Whereas, as we frequently point out in Tech-enhanced Life research, "age" is not really a good proxy for much. And certainly not the age of turning 65!

However, there are a variety of "subgroups" of older adults for whom specific smart home features might be particularly useful. For example, people with physical impairments like mobility challenges or vision or hearing challenges. Or people with some degree of cognitive impairment. Or people who need help in the home of various types.

A good way to think about smart home features is this. There are a variety of smart home features that are good for the population at large. These include thermostats, automation of appliances, security systems (burglar alarms, video doorbells), and air quality.

Then there are some specific smart home features that might seem especially useful for subgroups of the population — including some who are "older adults". We use this lens as we explore smart home features.

Other things to take into account when thinking about a smart home for "seniors" include:

  • there is often a difference in the level of mobility, dexterity, and memory decline of the person residing in the home;
  • the ability to set up and maintain devices and systems becomes limited by declining abilities and most likely will require remote support from a family member.

 

 

 

What Problems are Smart Home Features Solving?

We group smart home features into two buckets:

  • those that are useful for "everyone", and
  • those likely to be especially useful for subgroups of older adults and their families and friends. 

 

Generic Smart Home Features

There is a whole industry of "smart home" products.

The first things that come to mind about a smart home are smart appliances, lighting, HVAC, entertainment, and security. Basically, these are "smart" version of things that already exist. The focus is on making them "better", or "easier to use".

Then there is complex automation — functionality like timed and presence detection lighting controls; control of shades; temperature automation; video doorbells; voice-activated control of almost anything; etc etc.

These features appeal to many people, regardless of their age.

Below are some specific problems / use cases for smart home features of especial relevance to older adults. Feel free to add your ideas in the comments section further down the page.

 

Social Isolation. Loneliness.

There is a stereotype that is unfortunately all too common — the frail elderly person who lives alone and has mobility challenges, and no longer drives and is increasingly alone and isolated in their house or apartment.

We don't claim there are smart home features that can completely overcome the negative aspects of this life situation. But for those older adults trapped at home like this, there are some smart home features that can help.

  1. Artifical Intelligence (AI) — for example Alexa — has a role to play here. For example, one of the Longevity Explorers frequently says "Alexa is my friend".
     
  2. Devices that make virtual connections to friends and family easier are the second important tool relating to loneliness and isolation. There are a range of products that fit this description, including some that also incorporate AI elements.

To learn more about these smart home features see:

 

Voice Interfaces

Interfacing with gadgets can become more tricky for certain people as they grow older.

  • For example, people with vision challenges may have trouble reading buttons on a screen or using a keyboard.
  • People with tremor and other fine motor disorders may have trouble effectively pressing small buttons on a screen or scrolling.
  • People with mobility challenges may find it problematic to be continually getting up to adjust a switch or walking across the room to change the channel on a TV or music source.

For all of these situations, a device that can be activated by a voice command can make life much easier.

The way to think of the smart home feature for these situations is to picture the device you want to have controlled by voice, and then imagine a central "control system" (such as Alexa or Google Home) that can control that device for you after you give it an appropriate voice command.

These implementations can take a bit of setting up. But once set up, they can open up new possibilities for the older adult in question.

Our goal when we think about this is to turn the response of "that's just too much trouble" into "that's so easy, now I use that all the time".

 

Hearing Challenges

Older Adults all too often have hearing issues.

And often they remain unacknowledged. And as a result, these situations are common: 

  • the TV is turned up very loudly, annoying others who live in the house;
  • people have trouble hearing the doorbell or the telephone, or have trouble talking to people on the telephone because they can't hear well, or don't hear the smoke alarm when it goes off.

There are smart home solutions that can be helpful in these situations. Some involve some type of "smart device" which can connect wirelessly to a hearing aid, or to some other type of personalized hearing gadget (eg headphone). Other solutions involve captioning of the conversation (on TV or on the phone, for example).

 

Labor Saving Automation

One of the annoying side effects of growing older for many people is that things they used to do easily or quickly become harder and take longer.

This means that everyday tasks that used to be minor inconveniences can start to dominate life.

One becomes a slave to a long list of "tasks" that seem to take more and more of the time.

This includes things like paying the bills, and buying groceries. But it also includes things like cleaning the house; drawing the curtains each night and opening them in the morning; remembering to turn on the outside light at night and turn it off in the morning; changing the smoke alarm batteries; watering the garden; taking out the garbage; and likely much more.

The intriguing potential of the "smart home" is to automate those tasks that you especially dislike or which take up too much of your time.

Today, some of these tasks can already be automated. And in the future, we anticipate more of them being automated.

For example:

  • you can find a robot vacuum cleaner that can vacuum much of your house automatically for you without you needing to do much at all;
  • most people already have automatic dish washers and clothes washers;
  • it's relatively easy to automate lights and shades so that you no longer need to think about turning exterior lights on and off, or opening and closing the shades.
  • if you used to adjust the thermostat manually on a regular basis, that can almost certainly be automated.

Ideas like the smart fridge that automatically reorders staples for you when they go low, and knows when you need to throw out old food seem "imminent".

And no doubt there are other use cases to add to this list that you know of or would like to see (feel free to describe them in the comments section).

 

"Senior Moments", Impaired Cognition.

Everyone knows about "senior moments". And for some people, senior moments progress to become cognitive impairment. 

Can the smart home approach help in situations where a person has mild cognitive impairment? Ideally, helping a person remain independent longer — or just compensate for those pesky "senior moments"? 

Here are some examples of how the smart home can help.

Most Smart Home features start out as "reactive". In other words, the smart home responds to commands or pre-programmed automation.

But in situations of cognitive impairment, we see an important role for proactive smart home features.

For example:

  • While a smart home virtual assistant could answer requests such as “What’s on my calendar?” a smart home for seniors virtual assistant would proactively, verbally speak calendar events, and repeat them many times!
  • The same proactive approach would be taken on verbal reminders when detecting a senior's approach to the bathroom sink or kitchen sink, and verbally saying “Grandpa, remember to wash your hands”

If a senior suffered from memory decline and lack of verbal ability to speak a command to a virtual assistant, large buttons could be used to perform virtual assistant actions such as “place a video call to my son”, or “show the latest family pictures”, or “watch my favorite TV series”.

  • There are examples of exactly how to do some of these things in the section toward the bottom entitled "How to Get Started".

 

Safety & Security

In discussions of smart home features and older adults, people's thoughts often gravitate to safety and security. 

The smart home has numerous ways it can help with issues of safety and security.

  1. Burglar deterents and alarms of various sorts are a core building block of a smart home solution. "Smart Home" versions have some extra useful features. For example, it's easy to notify friends and family as well as the police if you wish when something happens.
     
  2. Often those same smart home safety systems allow you to add features like: connected smoke alarms, CO2 alarms, water leak sensors, video cameras. You can set things up so that if any one of a number of things go wrong, "someone" can get notified.
     
  3. You can get automatic shut off devices that can turn off the stove.
     
  4. If you travel frequently, you can often check all these systems remotely so you can keep an eye on things when you are away. And if you prefer, someone else can do that too.

 

Some Scenarios

Here are some relevant scenarios that people worry about, and which smart home features should be able to help avoid.

  • The stove gets left on by accident, and something catches fire as a result. 
  • Someone is running a bath, leaves the tap on while they "do something else", and forgets to come back — and so the water overflows and makes a big mess.
  • You live alone, have an accident, and need help, but can't reach the phone.

 

When an Emergency Happens

We have lost track of how many entrepreneurs have shown us ideas about incorporating some type of "fall detection alarm" into a home. These ideas are interesting, although we tend to favor a solution that can move with the person when they leave the house. But there is a much more interesting solution that a smart home enables relating to "emergency alerts".

Many older adults do worry about falling and hurting themselves while alone at home, and then lying there for hours until someone finds them. And there is a whole industry devoted to selling "medical alert" pendants for this scenario.

An important question to ask is:

"when the emergency services are summoned to your house to rescue you (and you are lying on the floor with a broken hip), how do they get in to your house?"

The traditional approach favored by the medical alert industry is for you to get a key lockbox that you screw onto the exterior wall near your front door, and place a door key in it, and give the access code to the medical alert company, who will hopefully give that to the first responders.

While this does sort of work, it leaves open the question of what the local, friendly burglar might be tempted to do when they see the lockbox.

Enter the "electronic lock".

This smart home gadget replaces a conventional front door lock with a similar lock that can be opened either by a key or by a code entered into a set of buttons.

And if you have such a device you can give the medical alert company that "code", and the need for a lockbox goes way. You can also give the code to a family member, who is then able to open the door from a distance (eg if there is an emergency), and you can have "temporary" codes that you hand out to people like caregivers who need temporary access.

We have not explored this solution in gory detail and there remain some questions. Like how hard is it to hack these locks, and are they as robust as more old fashioned locks?

But for an older adult who has invested in a medical alert and faces this issue, we think they are well worth considering.

 

Caregiving

A big difference between "older adults" and younger adults is that, at some point as they age, many people start to need some "help".

It often starts with needing a bit of help with what are called iADL's (shopping, paying bills, etc). And may progress to needing help with ADL's (dressing, bathing, etc). All of this gets lumped into the category of "caregiving", and may be provided by professionals one hires, but is frequently provided by family members.

The role of caregiver is often taken on by adult children who are juggling multiple other responsibilities as well. The potential of the smart home, as it relates to caregiving, is that well designed smart home features have the potential to both improve the quality of life of the person being cared for and reduce the time and stress required from the caregiver.

Examples where smart home features can help with caregiving include:

  • automation of routine "checking up on" activities;
  • alerts when the caree's life style changes or capabilities start to degrade (How many times a day do they adjust the thermostat, or open the fridge? How many days since they used the shower?);
  • using an AI to help with routine tasks that would otherwise take an in-person visit — like checking supplies in the fridge, or assembling a grocery list.

We continue to think that the idea of "the home that helps care for you" is a powerful one.

However, we note that, since we first started thinking about this space, there have been a number of products that have come to market — but none we can think of that achieved mainstream adoption. The reasons for that require a different article. But in short, entrepreneurs beware!

 

 

 

What are the Downsides to a Smart Home?

The main negative of the smart home features is that they add complexity "behind the scenes".

This is not a problem if someone living in the home is willing and able to take care of things when they "stop working". But if that is not the case, there needs to be a plan for someone else to "provide tech support when things go wrong!"

If you are a remote family caregiver, this can be a real problem when your loved one says, “It doesn’t work!!!”

Of course, certain things must always be handled locally, such as setting up a Wi-Fi network or installing hardware. However, most modern smart home applications allow remote modification of settings over the cloud. You can even set up some devices before shipment, even if your Wi-Fi network is not the same as your loved one.

Frank comments: "My aunt lives in a rural area with frequent power outages, and I have had to give her the means to perform remotely a power cycle on cameras."

 

Need for Tech Support

In fact, we are finding that the need for remote tech support is an important and widespread issue for many. 

It applies even if all a person has is a computer. And as the complexity of the smart home feature set grows in someone's house, tech support becomes even more important.

Our Longevity Explorers have an ongoing exploration investigating how best to get this sort of tech support. 

For the family caregiver who takes on the task of being the "remote tech support person" (for their parent, for example), Frank has several "DIY solutions" (here).

Frank's comment: Also, you can make a “clone” of your loved one’s Wi-Fi and devices to assist you in understanding their issues. For example, you can log into your loved one’s Alexa account, Amazon Photos account, Google Calendar and make needed changes based on their changing needs.

 

 

 

Smart Home as a Service

Given the advantages of the smart home features (stay independent longer?) and the requirement for tech support, we think there is an interesting opportunity for a "smart home as a service" offering (for a fee, of course).

This service would:

  • help you pick the smart home features you need;
  • teach you how to install the equipment or do it for you;
  • provide ongoing monitoring and maintenance.

And it would be easy to add a layer of extra services, "enabled" by the smart home data, such as regular changing of smoke alarm batteries, and other routine preventative maintenance tasks. Who knows, maybe they could also take out the garbage!

Over the last few years we have seen several companies attempt to offer services like this. Some of them have not really got the service features right. Some have been too expensive. And perhaps some exist and are great, but we just do not know about them.

Feel free to mention such services in the comments if you have used them.

 

 

 

How to Get Started

Further down the page is a list of specific problems. Clicking on these will take you to specific "solutions". In many cases these "solutions" come with detailed "How To" explanations.

 

The Smart Home "On Ramp" for a Parent

And here are some suggestions from author Frank Engelman about ways to get started if you are helping an aging relative or friend (for example, a parent).

"If you are convinced a smarthome would benefit your parent but they are resisting, and if you will assume the role of family tech “admin,” here are a few ideas."

 

Smart Lighting

The first thing to do is provide something useful in the way of automation for your loved one, for example, smart lighting.

On my daily morning walks through the neighborhood, I noticed that several homes still had their front porch lights on after the morning commute. I also remembered that when I drove to the store after dark, many houses had not turned on their front porch lights.

In both of these cases, I thought it looks like someone is on vacation, not a feeling I wanted at my house!

My solution is automating the lighting so it automatically turns on and off at specific times, or in response to specific events. 

This approach could be a good way to convince your loved one that senior home automation is useful. It worked for Frank, whose relatives are now enthusiastic adopters of a variety of smart home features.

 

And More

  • Once you have installed the smart lighting, Alexa timed control and voice control of other lights becomes an easy sell.
  • This is then followed by a doorbell camera, with an Echo Show to view it.
  • Soon after that, the need for family video calls and family photos on that Echo Show becomes obvious.
  • After that, consider calendar management and ADL tracking.

 

Specific Smart Home Solutions & Recipes

These other articles on Tech-enhanced Life are especially relevant. In addition, you can see specific "Do It Yourself" (DIY) recipes at the links below.

 

Don't see what you need?

  • Join our Newsletter to get notified when we publish new research.
     
  • Ask questions or make suggestions in the comments section (below).

 

Specific "Problems" and "Smart Home Solution" Recipes


 

 

Help Support our Research

We hope you found this work useful. If you like what we do, and would like to see it continue, please consider contributing time, ideas, or some funding to help support our work.

We are currently raising contributions from those who find our work valuable to complete some new research initiatives, all targeted at helping older adults live better for longer. And we are always looking for contributions of ideas about what to work on, or help executing some of our projects.

Learn More: Help Support our Research.

 


 

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Last Updated: February 22, 2021.