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Innovation in senior care: 'Telecaregivers' help more seniors age at home

Cameras, sensors, and video chat allows caregivers to be hundreds of miles away. But some see shades of 'Big Brother' in this new senior care model.

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But Collins’s homes aren’t widely available across the country, and many AgeLab gizmos have yet to hit the market. So for folks like the Fitzgeralds, the most practical services are home-monitoring systems that repurpose existing technology.

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Tracking Grandma remotely

Take Adaptive Home. The start-­up elder-care monitoring company uses sensors to track a senior’s movement around his or her home. Tech­nicians place about a dozen motion detectors around a client’s home to give adult children a detailed summary of a parent’s day. Sensors placed under a mat beside a bed indicate when Mom gets up in the morning. Additional sensors track when she’s opened the fridge or taken various foods or medications. The sensors are programmed to feed information to a secure website for adult children to check.

The Fitzgeralds use ResCare’s remote telecare service, called RestAssured, to enable their daughter to keep tabs on them. Video cameras, audio systems, and a few motion sensors placed around the Fitzgeralds’ house and some 300 other homes record the residents’ daily routines for telecaregivers and adult children to track remotely from a secure website. If something is amiss, caregivers and family members are alerted immediately. In fact, the cameras are so sensitive that a telecaregiver with ResCare once zoomed in on a frying pan and told her charges to cook the eggs and sausage longer because they didn’t look done, says Nel Taylor, a spokeswoman for ResCare.

“[Children] feel such guilt when parents live so far away,” says Ms. Taylor. “This is the first step to help people stay where they want to be and help children care for them.”

But for many, there’s a fine line between convenient and creepy.

“It’s like Big Brother is watching you,” says Nancy Schlossberg, a professor emeritus of the University of Maryland who wrote “Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose.” “It’s not that I’m opposed to technology, but what worries me is whether it diminishes older people.”

Too often, Dr. Schlossberg says, adult children impose decisions on their aging parents, many of whom aren’t comfortable with technology to begin with. “[Seniors] have got to be part of the decision,” she says, suggesting children introduce new technology in stages.

Back in Savannah at the Fitz­geralds’ house, Mrs. Fitzgerald, who seems to be always laughing and in a sunny mood, insists she loves the telecare service her daughter had installed two years ago. “I love it, because it’s just for me,” she says. “It keeps me out of trouble.”

For her daughter’s part, the decision to install cameras and sensors to track her parents wasn’t difficult.

“I just felt relief, that someone’s going to help me,” she says. Her father can go to mass in the morning or run to the grocery store, something he couldn’t do before the telecare system. “I don’t know what we would do without the camera system,” she says. “Me and my dad have a life now.”

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