Q&A: Elder-Care Technology

Can technology make arranging care for ailing parents and spouses easier? Marion Somers , author of "Elder Care Made Easier,"  says yes, if caregivers  are willing to be creative. NEWSWEEK's Alexandra Gekas spoke with  Somers about ways that families can use technology to  help provide care for those who are ill. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: For starters how should people go about hiring help?
Marion  Somers:
When I interview and hire an aide, I ask a lot of questions and do some deep probing. When you hire an aide, they have a key to the house, and they bring that home with them. I ask for three references and I really check up on those three references. I want to know the person I am hiring has some experience with an older person or someone with dementia so its not a serious learning curve for the aide to deal with the issue at hand.

If money is tight, what can people do to protect older relatives?
Very often if somebody is isolated they don't have a lot of contact. I try to get my patients involved on a one-to-one basis with contacts where they touch base by phone. But also you have to use your ingenuity because often there are neighbors who are concerned about an older person living in their community, but they don't know how to help and they don't want to come across as busy bodies. Neighbors are also a good resource in case technology malfunctions, which it often does. Besides, not everyone has the resources to take advantage of technology, which means equipment and money. Also if there is a blackout in the city this stuff is null and void, that's why I like the personal contact. If one of my people lives in a building I talk to the neighbors and I give them my number. They don't have to get involved but they keep an eye out because most older people have habits, they go down and get their newspaper, whatever it is they do it on a Monday through Sunday basis. They don't have weekends the way people who are working do.

In what simple ways can someone use technology to help them take care of their elderly relatives?
I start off with the small things. Medic Alert bracelet, especially if the person has any allergies, has an 800 number and all of the medical information you give is there. What happened to one of my clients is that someone stole her pocket book but she had the Medic Alert bracelet and by the time she got to the hospital, all of her medical information was downloaded.  Don't get the gold or silver because you don't want someone to steal it. There's also the Alzheimer's Association, which has a wandering bracelet. If somebody is physically okay but wanders in and out of competency, they could walk down the street and the noise disorients them, so it's known by all the EMTs and doctors and police and firemen so if they see the bracelet they know to call that number and the family is then notified. There's also something called  Lifeline, which is electronically wired in the house, this is not for someone with dementia, but if someone is living alone it is a necklace you wear when you're in the house and if you should fall the necklace is on you and it sends out an alarm. Quietcare is great because it keeps the senior safe and independent, it unobtrusively records what the person is doing, and whatever the person is doing throughout the apartment or house. It's relatively new to the market so I personally don't know anyone who has actually used it but its' getting some good reviews.

Technology is often difficult for the elderly to use. Are there easy-to-use options to keep the line of communication open for relatives who may not live nearby?
The jitterbug is a cell phone that is geared for the older person. It's got big buttons, a larger screen and if the older person needs some technical help with it they can call up a number where they will get someone who is trained to deal with an older person. There is also another gadget that has hit the streets, its called Presto. It's for someone who is at home who is not computer literate at all. You plug it in like a fax but at the other end you can write to grandma or send pictures through your computer and she can hand write a letter and send it through like a fax but it comes to your computer. It really opens communication.

What if your elderly relative is resistant to technology?
You don't want to frustrate the older person because they could just as easily throw the thing into the tub, or just disconnect it. I had a client who didn't want her kids in her house, so she just disconnected their monitoring device. She felt that they were intruding in her life even though she understood that they meant well so we were able to convince her to  use the  Llifeline, which was not intrusive but she could use it for an emergency. You never do any of these things without discussing it with the older person. Tell it from your perspective, because if you don't tell them how it's affecting you, they're just trying not to lose their independence, not to fall and just to focus on what they're doing, but they're not really involved in what your concerns are so you have to tell them how it is affecting you. It's not selfish, it's survival.

What is the most important thing for people to remember when they are taking care of an elderly relative?
There are more elderly people than ever before and family members are losing an incredible amount of time from their jobs taking care of the elderly. Most people are not proactive and they know grandma is losing it, but they wait until there is an emergency. But if people attend to the little things they can prevent that emergency. When you're on an airlines, they ask you to put the mask on first before you put it on kids, it's the same in this situation. You must take care of yourself before they take care of grandma. The first thing that goes is exercise and social life and then your support system goes so you must be proactive and reactive and you must take care of yourself, which is not selfish, you just absolutely must.

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