How Smart Home Technology is Empowering Seniors and Combating Social Isolation

By Anna Codrea-Rado, Contributor

Upon first glance, some smart home devices can seem gimmicky — fridges that tell you to buy more milk and internet-connected kettles. But what if these Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets could give an elderly relative a greater feeling of independence?

By 2060, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is expected to more than double from 46 million in 2016 to over 98 million, with senior citizens representing nearly a quarter of the total population.

The United Nations describes the aging population as “unprecedented” and “pervasive,” with global social and economic implications. But one of the fundamental challenges it brings is how to provide optimal care for these individuals.

In the last few years, a number of entrepreneurs have entered the senior-care industry — today, the size of the global elderly care market is estimated to be $863.7 billion — developing in-home smart devices that are becoming the next frontier for elder care.

Repurposing IoT Technology

In the UK, the assisted-living company Alcove is making strides in senior care by repurposing existing smart home technology, like motion sensors and wearables, to meet the specific needs of seniors. By applying a software layer to the updated IoT devices, the company also extracts data to further improve its senior service.

The reason for creating an assisted technology platform based on a smart home philosophy, for Alcove CEO and co-founder Hellen Bowey, was simple: “Smart home technology can be used to empower individuals that would otherwise be marginalized or excluded by society.”

One of the ways the company is empowering seniors is by adapting Amazon’s voice-activated Alexa. Alcove sells a version of the Echo speaker that’s been pre-configured with an emergency function, so that when users give a specific “help” command, the device instantly sends a message to family members’ phones.

The company also sells a version of the Amazon Echo Dot, set up to act as a check-in device, to better monitor when caregivers or friends visit. Since commands are all voice-activated, it removes the need for an analog system that requires caregivers to manually record when they visit a senior or administer medicine.

“Smart home technology can be used to empower individuals that would otherwise be marginalized or excluded by society.”

— Hellen Bowey, Alcove CEO and Co-founder

Regaining Independence

Alcove’s devices aren’t only programmed to handle emergencies; the company also plans to use the technology to give seniors a taste of autonomy. “We want to use smart home technology not just to safeguard people, but also to enhance their quality of life,” Bowey explained.

For example, Alcove updated a traditional assisted-care phone often found in senior homes. While the telephone typically has one line to dial an emergency call center, Alcove’s video- and voice-calling tablet also enables seniors to call designated family members. The video-call function also combats social isolation, a growing problem in the U.S., where one-third of those over 65 — and half of those over 85 — live alone.

Another company tackling the dangers that come from social isolation is Zanthion. The smart home technology company, which produces fall-detection software, uses motion sensors to monitor an elderly users’ movements and vital signs and assess if they need medical assistance.

One feature of Zanthion’s software notifies opted-in family members and caretakers if a senior has fallen. With the mobile platform, users can get an alert that enables them to quickly respond.

“Technology removes that barrier of time and connects people to their community,” Zanthion CEO Phil Regenie explained. The feature gives family members a way to respond quickly in an emergency, and the company sees a future in which neighbors and local residents use the platform to look out for one another, bringing care to a local level and deepening community connections. “[People] are now becoming more integrated with each other, and they get assurance that people in their community are there for them.”

“[People] are now becoming more integrated with each other, and they get assurance that people in their community are there for them.”

— Phil Regenie, Zanthion CEO

Proactive Care

A key way IoT technology can advance the quality of senior care is by shifting from a reactive to a proactive model. Instead of care being provided after an event has already happened, technology is now able to work on a preventative level.

One of Alcove’s products is a system designed to prevent wandering, a common issue for those suffering from confusion or memory loss. The technology places sensors at the front door and hallway that create an alert if the door is opened and the resident leaves the house.

Zanthion is also using digital advances to gain deeper insight into its users, which can then be used for prevention. Regenie believes that there will be a future in which the company will be able to predict if someone is going to fall. How?

The company’s software reads data from its sensors about heart rate, oxygen levels, and bodily movements. Collecting and analyzing this information makes it possible to build and understand patterns of behavior that will become sophisticated enough to detect an event before it happens, and trigger a notification to caregivers that a fall is imminent.

“The predictive nature of the system will become infinitely better,” Regenie said. “We’ll be able to predict that someone is about to fall and bring a resource to them.”