Friday, May 15, 2009
The Aging Evolution: Seniors want to age at home, but will builders adapt?
Unobtrusive technology lets children monitor parents
Sacramento Business Journal - by Michael Shaw Staff writer
If Wes Justyn’s 91-year-old mother forgets to measure her blood pressure, he gets an e-mail alert.
If she’s inactive, lying in bed for half a day, or hasn’t opened the refrigerator, another e-mail arrives in his inbox.
More alarming behavior could trigger phone calls from the in-home monitoring system that Justyn, an insurance broker from El Dorado Hills, had installed in his mother Nettie’s home 18 months ago.
He is one of the few people using new technologies to allow a parent to “age in place” and avoid the often disruptive or costly relocation into assisted-living facilities or nursing homes.
“I’m very passionate about this,” Justyn said. “This is unobtrusive and it gives our seniors some dignity.”
Senior advocates say 85 percent of the elderly want to remain at home as they age as opposed to moving into care facilities. Emerging technologies that are still not widely known could help them do just that. There are systems available to test cognitive abilities daily, track vital signs and plot their movements by using motion detectors and pressure pads. The results can be continuously uploaded to the Internet and sent to children, physicians or caregivers.
The question is whether builders and the nation’s older homebuyers are catching on to these technologies, which can be hard to retrofit to existing homes but could be easily and cheaply accommodated in newly constructed ones as part of the design process.
Some homebuilders who concentrate on “active adult” communities de-emphasize features related to age and health issues — largely because their buyers don’t want to think about them. Instead, they hype bigger great rooms for entertaining guests and amenity-packed clubhouses.
“Baby boomers are never going to get old,” joked Edward Johanson, a boomer himself and president of Lakemont Homes. The Roseville company partners with Eskaton, a provider of senior housing and services. The partnership is building homes in Roseville and Placerville aimed at 65-year-olds and above, and buyers in this group are more attuned to health needs than the slightly younger boomers.
The homes Johanson is building include the physical characteristics residents will need later in life, such as wheelchair access to all areas. The effort adds about $6,000 to $8,000 per home, including wiring for advanced technologies.
But while they also include technological upgrades, such as more wiring capacity, he said many of the new technologies are too new to generate much interest.
“We are not rolling that out in a comprehensive fashion,” he said. “We do anticipate, like many technologies, that it will grow very fast.”
The next age demographic that homebuilders cater to is the 55-and-older, or “active adult,” crowd. They may eventually need health-related technology, but it isn’t something they’re thinking about.
“Items preferred by 55-and-over buyers do not meet the old-fashioned stereotype,” said Jacque Petroulakis, a spokeswoman for Del Webb Communities, which builds homes aimed at empty-nesters and active adults close to retirement.
She said buyers want more bedrooms to allow for in-home offices, and larger garages and cabinet spaces for keepsakes accumulated over the years. Those who are taking care of parents, or siblings or friends who are buying a home together want split plans with bedrooms and bathrooms on both sides of the house (see related story, this page).
What they don’t want is to feel old.
“While we do not get considerable demand from buyers for specific items such as wheelchair roll-in showers, our homes are designed with the future in mind,” she said.
Seniors are eventually going to need help if they want to remain independent.
“People want to remain in their homes and we have to make that a reality,” said Scott Peifer, an associate director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies in Washington, D.C. Peifer, who lives in the Sacramento region, ran down an impressive list of available gadgets beyond those already mentioned: Software that tests cognitive fitness, breathalyzer-like contraptions that check whether medication is being taken, wearable equipment that monitors heart rate and body temperature, accelerometers that can tell when a person has fallen, and tech that promotes social connection, such as two-way video visits.
A variety of well-known manufacturers, such as Intel Corp. and GE Health Care, are now offering such products.
Many of these technologies are on display at the Eskaton National Demonstration Home in Roseville, built by Lakemont, one of the only demo homes to feature the latest technology.
The cost for these systems can vary between $1,000 and $5,000 and some come with monthly charges, Peifer said.
But it could be much more expensive to retrofit an older home that can’t handle these systems, said Justyn, who along with his wife designed the 1,200-square-foot guest house where his parents moved eight years ago. They put in an electrical system that can handle additional burdens, and more conduit tubing for wires, long before many of these technologies were available.
“If you do it at the time, it really isn’t any more expensive,” said Justyn, 62, who’s also a member of the Eskaton board of directors. He said he paid about $3,000 for the system in his mom’s home, which is made by GrandCare Systems LLC of West Bend, Wis. It uses 11 monitors, most of them invisible to the casual eye, and other gadgets that report her blood pressure and weight.
But no cameras.
“She said, ‘I don’t want any damn cameras in my house,’ ” Justyn said, adding that his mother knows the system is there to monitor her health, even if she’s not clear how it works.
He said there has been only one glitch, when a piece of hardware malfunctioned. It was replaced within a day.
“I like the peace of mind,” he said, adding that he often checks on his mother through his personal digital assistant. He also likes being able to show physicians his mother’s long-term health trends. He told the story of charting the decrease in her mobility after a doctor prescribed a blood pressure medicine and showing the results to the doctor.
“He was blown away,” he said.