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High tech helps elderly, impaired

| Thursday, Aug. 26, 2010

Most adults with elderly parents can attest to the extra time and effort required to make sure mom and dad are OK.

They may have to call them every day to remind them to take their medication. Or they may receive a call from a neighbor concerned about newspapers piling up on their parent's doorstep.

But a new generation of wireless devices is promising to be the eyes and ears of concerned family members.

These gadgets are more sophisticated than traditional medical alert systems, such as Life Alert, which typically use a push-button pendant and a console to call for help.

Some gadgets can relay data on weight, blood pressure or blood sugar levels to a remote location. One system, GrandCare, employs motion sensors that can alert an adult child by e-mail, text message or voice mail if there is unusual movement -- or lack thereof -- in their parent's home.

Home Healthcare Solutions in Murrysville makes a computerized pill dispenser that automatically notifies a relative or caregiver if the user forgets to take medication.

Many tout the technology as an alternative to moving a parent to a costly assisted living or nursing facility. They can also help to relieve the guilt and anxiety of adult children, who often are working full-time and raising children of their own.

But others question whether such devices violate an individual's privacy. And still others consider it dehumanizing to track a human being in much the same way biologists might tag and track a grizzly bear.

When Betty Rapin was knocked unconscious after a fall in her Penn Township home in 2007, she purchased Life Alert for herself and her husband, Richard. The couple each have pendants they can push that will call for help via a console in their home.

"It's been a blessing," says Rapin, 79.

But she says she couldn't abide a technology that would relay her every move to her daughter, who lives about a mile away.

"They'll know I'm going to the kitchen. They'll know I'm going to the bathroom. It's redundant. It's, like, too much information," Rapine says. "Like if I went in my medicine cupboard and I went back three times, I wouldn't want them calling me up, saying 'Did you take too much medicine?' It would drive me crazy."

Carol Sikov Gross, an attorney who specializes in eldercare, expressed qualified support for the new technology.

"I think there might be privacy issues," she says. "Hopefully, it's something that children would discuss with their parents and get the parents' agreement to do it."

Elias Janetis founded MobileHelp in 2006 after he wearied of trying to keep tabs on his widowed grandmother, who had Alzheimer's. He lived in Williamsport. His grandmother lived in Florida.

"It was a very frustrating situation," Janetis says. "You call her house and don't get an answer and your whole day's derailed. I was flying down a couple times a month. I'd call her a couple times a day."

Traditional medical alert systems are usually limited to a range of about 600 feet, Janetis says. MobileHelp includes a mobile GPS device that can work outside the home. It uses the AT&T network. Cost is about $35 per month. An initial activation fee may also apply.

"I knew that traditional medical alert systems only worked in the home," he says. "A lot of seniors live very active lives and would like a button that works beyond the home. I saw a need in the marketplace and an underserved demographic."

Matthew Lee, a doctoral student at the Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, is part of a team working at the Quality of Life Technology Center. The Center, a joint effort between theCarnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, designs technology to help older adults and people with disabilities.

They design and test devices that are more finely calibrated than commercial sensor systems, such as GrandCare. By retrofitting household items with sensors, wireless transmitters and accelerometers, they can record the movements of the elderly as they perform everyday tasks, such as making coffee.

"We chose coffeemaking because it's a multi- step task," Lee says. "Certain things have to happen before other things happen. Because of that, we can keep track of the different parts of the task. We can figure out when people make errors."

These flubs could indicate a decline in cognitive skills or motor function, could be early signs of Alzheimer's or other diseases.

"The goal here is to know that there's a problem before there's' an accident," Lee says. "The Lifeline is for after you've fallen."

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