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Aging in place can be so much easier with smart home technology

Systems promote health, safety and security to enhance quality of life

Healthy octogenarians JT and Emily Galea wanted to prepare their one-story house in Boca Raton, Fla., for the best life in their retirement. The Galea home is chock full of high-tech enhancements. that help them age in place. (Saul Martinez/for The Washington Post )

Terese Klitenic, 65, had two goals when she moved a few years ago to a townhouse in Waverly Woods, a 55-plus community in Marriottsville, Md.

One was to enjoy all that the active-adult community offers. The other was to prepare for a life of safety and comfort as the years go by.

Likewise, in Boca Raton, Fla., healthy octogenarians JTand Emily Galea wanted to prepare their one-story house for the best life in their retirement.

Both homes incorporate essentials for safe senior living, including primary bedroom, bath and living spaces on one level; smooth floors (that would accommodate wheelchairs and rollators); good lighting; and kitchens, baths, laundry and storage areas designed for safe, convenient use.

But when it came to incorporating technology for aging in place, the homeowners took very different approaches. Klitenic opted to start small, with a few tech tools. The Galea home is chock full of high-tech enhancements.

Supporting health, safety and security are important components of successfully aging in place. So are home management systems that maintain a comfortable environment, and communication and recreation systems that enable social engagement, stimulation and entertainment.

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Wanda Gozdz, president of Golden Age Living, is a residential interior designer and certified aging-in-place specialist (CAPS) whose company provides CAPS training and services. She says “aging in place is the ability to remain in your home as your lifestyle changes over time.”

As CEO and co-founder of Tech-Enhanced Life, which has a website (techenhancedlife.com) and programs to identify and evaluate tech products for seniors, Richard Caro says he sees aging-in-place technology as a means to help people maintain the daily life they have long enjoyed. And while many tech systems are helpful, Caro notes that some issues can be handled by simple, low-tech devices. He likes jar openers, for example, because they enable people with weak or arthritic hands to continue enjoying their favorite jarred foods.

Getting started

Klitenic says she wanted tech tools that would allow her to “live alone safely and enjoy movies and music and life in general.” Assisted by Zachary Klaiman of D.C.-based Ztech, a company that provides technology and support for seniors, she chose just three things: a Ring smart doorbell, some Roku devices and an Apple watch.

With a camera focused on who’s near the front door and a chime that rings when people walk by, the doorbell “makes me feel secure,” she says. She already had a smart TV so she augmented two other sets with Roku devices to stream programs and movies. Roku “is inexpensive and easy to use,” she says. While she’s pleased that the watch can alert her contacts if she falls, she hasn’t explored most of its other smart features. As for additional tech products, she will consider them if and when she sees a need.

The Galeas decided a few years ago to transition from their large, two-story home to a smaller, one-story place. They bought a 1,700-square-foot, two-bedroom house in a 55-plus community convenient to where two of their children live. After a three-month remodel, they moved into the house last March.

They made the structure accessible by raising the floor of the sunken living room to the same level as the rest of the space, installing a curbless shower, replacing the kitchen cabinet shelves with pullout units and adding handrails to the bathrooms. Strategically located lighting, including LEDs, task lights and under-cabinet strips, brightens work zones and makes passageways safe to navigate.

JT and Emily’s son Jeff designed the tech side of the remodel. He is CEO and founder of Boca Tech and Automation, a company that integrates smart technology into homes. Starting with the floor plan and a discussion with his parents about their daily living routines, Jeff developed a comprehensive system that reflects how they use the space, lending safety and convenience to their everyday lives.

The tech is tied into a central Control4 system, says JT, “so we can control the whole house from anywhere, from our iPads, smartphones and touch panels.” Included are automated and scheduled lighting, motorized window shades, motion sensor lights, security cameras at the front door and around the house, sensors that detect open windows and doors, motion-activated driveway and garage lighting, automatic operation of the front door, a smart thermostat, music, and WiFi. The system is integrated with third-party devices that JT can use to read his blood pressure and heart rate and transmit the results to his doctor.

The Galeas use a jumbo-size, 120-inch front projection TV to enjoy movies, TV shows and games as well as video calls with family and friends. Equipment can be attached to the base of the screen that allows a sound bar and camera to track to the person in the room who is speaking. Smaller screens in JT’s home office, in Emily’s quilting studio and in Jeff’s business office (for remote access) show live camera shots from security cameras around the property.

Learning curve

The population of Americans 65 and older is a “silver tsunami,” Gozdz says. The Census Bureau projects that by 2034 this group will total 77 million, outnumbering the population of children.

JT and Emily were relatively comfortable bringing tech into their home, because JT has work experience in the tech arena and because of Jeff’s role as project coordinator. But most homeowners in their age group are not.

“Older older adults” — those over 75, who did not grow up with computers, smartphones and other devices — “are most likely to approach technology with trepidation,” says Madj Alwan, executive director of the LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies. Coming behind them are groups with more tech experience. “In five years, retirees will be much more familiar with tech,” Alwan says.

For now, many older homeowners need help through the whole process, from choosing tech systems to setting up and using them. They often get it from young people, especially family members. Klitenic relies on her daughter and son, quipping, “If my kids aren’t available, I’m clueless.”

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Getting used to employing all the tech in the Galea house was an adjustment for Emily. “There is a learning curve,” she says, but “I grew into it. If people can use a smartphone, they’ll catch onto this easier. The biggest hurdle for me was learning the new touch screen, learning the sequence, the dashboard. It took a couple of weeks of trial and error. When I got really stuck I called my husband or one of my children.”

Service providers such as Klaiman offer installation and user assistance, too. “Finding Zach was a godsend,” Klitenic says. Klaiman, 28, uses the company tagline, “I taught my Grandma, and I can teach you.”

“A big part of helping people is being there while they practice” using the systems and “teaching them how to troubleshoot,” Klaiman says. “I walk them through the process slowly and patiently. I understand that this stuff is scary, intimidating and frustrating for a lot of older people. They say, ‘I’m stupid,’ but I tell them that I get why they’re this way. I instill confidence that they can do it.”

When they gain trust in their ability to use and troubleshoot the technology, “it’s crazy empowering,” he adds.

Klaiman backs up the training with written, step-by-step instructions. He remains available to help remotely or in person. Gozdz provides a “cheat sheet” to her clients as well, and encourages them to call with questions. It’s not unusual for tech companies to offer service contracts on installed products, says Gozdz. Boca Tech and Automation has one that includes regular preventive maintenance as well as problem-solving.

It’s wise to work with experts in aging-in-place technology. Klaiman has IT support certification from Google and is earning certification from Apple. Through her D.C. company Living at Home Consultations, occupational therapist Tori Goldhammer enables people to continue living safely in their homes. She has certifications in home modifications, aging in place and fall prevention, as well as credentials as an assistive technology practitioner. She recommends tech products that would be useful to homeowners, but also is “mindful of what they can handle.” As for setting up tech equipment, choose a contractor experienced in smart home installation.

And “caregivers who have experience with technology are essential for the implementation and ongoing success of using tech systems,” says Carly Shilling, community living program manager for the Howard County Office on Aging and Independence.

The tech advantage

“Technology is the ultimate aging-in-place asset if you use it correctly,” says Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP. “It brings safety, convenience, peace of mind — and a fun factor.” Technology helps all homeowners, but especially seniors, by automating “things that are a pain or difficult to do,” says Michael Miller, author of “My Smart Home for Seniors.” Tech advances also allow caregivers outside the house to monitor and provide support remotely. Miller says some tech systems can be hard to use and troubleshoot, though “it’s easier now than four or five years ago.”

Alwan sees significant improvement, too. The voice control processing is more natural now, he says, and touch-screen devices are easier to use. “Tech has gotten radically more intuitive,” Kamber says, adding that most devices now are user-friendly. Kamber warns that homeowners could encounter problems if they buy “lower-cost knockoffs that may come with design or interconnectivity flaws.”

Advances in tech are a two-edged sword, says Alwan. “The smarter it is, the better it knows you and predicts your habits.” That’s helpful. But it also raises concerns about potential privacy and security risks. The trade-off, Alwan says, is between convenience and security. He doesn’t think homeowners should worry. “You are in control of your privacy,” he says. Turn off the microphone on your smart speaker, for instance, when you don’t plan to use it. “Know the risks and mitigate for them,” says Alwan, then “reap the benefits of smart home technology.”

What are must-have smart home systems and devices for aging in place? Here’s a list of recommendations from Kamber, Miller and Shilling:

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  • ·WiFi with a broadband connection.
  • A smart speaker device such as Amazon Echo, Google Nest and Apple Home. This should be the hub of the home tech system, says Miller, and should be synced with the other smart products. Shilling says that a smart speaker system with virtual assistant technology can set timers, make lists and even make phone calls via voice command.
  • A device such as an iPad or Chromebook that has an interactive screen for system use and management. Kamber says it’s important to be able to visually and manually interact with smart systems.
  • Smart plugs and smart lightbulbs programmed with a lighting schedule.
  • Smart video doorbells such as Ring and Nest, door lock systems such as August smart locks, and smart burglar and fire alarms. Smart security packages such as those from Vivint and SimpliSafe encompass these security features and more.
  • Smart medication aids such as the Reminder Rosie smart clock, Medminder pill dispenser, and Pria or Hero Medication management subscription services.
  • Smartphones and smartwatches. Shilling says they provide access to apps to help with health management, socialization, managing finances, household oversight and emergency response.
  • In-home cameras that caregivers can access to check on the homeowner’s well-being and provide support remotely.

Klaiman also recommends an electric tea kettle for safety, as it shuts off automatically when the water has been heated and eliminates the fire hazards of burners. For additional safety in the kitchen, devices such as CookStop use motion sensors that can detect if nobody is tending the cooking and automatically shut off the oven or stovetop. Kamber recommends multicookers such as Instant Pot, which can be used in a variety of ways, including slow cooker and pressure cooker, and features a lid that locks into place until it can be removed safely.

Alwan recommends robotic vacuums and floor washers such as Roomba because they ease housecleaning. To maintain strength and balance, he points to interactive home exercise systems such as Mirror. Kamber likes Peloton treadmill systems for seniors.

“Nothing is foolproof with technology,” Shilling says. “Having a backup plan is a good idea.”

In case of a power outage, the Galeas’ home system switches to battery backup that lasts for about 15 minutes. If the outage were longer than that, a generator would run the system.

To people who are hesitant about technology Emily Galea advises: “Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t say, ‘I can’t.’ Give it a try and it will grow on you.”

“Start out with one thing, then when you’re comfortable, step it up a step or two,” she says. “Eventually you’ll wonder how you lived without it. It really does make a big difference to our comfort, our security and the way we live.”

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