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How to Keep an Eye on Your Aging Parents Without Annoying the Crap Out of Them

Dan Tynan

“I feel like a teenager again,” Ena said. My mother-in-law wasn’t referring to a new exercise routine, a heart-healthy diet, or her latest blood pressure medications. She was talking about Live!y, a sensor-based system I’d just installed in her apartment to keep track of her activity.

Ena was being sarcastic, in her polite Lancashire way. She’s well aware of the various systems we have in place to keep track of our teens; now we’ve started doing it to her.

Among other things, a Live!y sensor attached to her keychain tells us when she leaves the house and if she hasn’t returned home by 10 p.m.

“So now I have a curfew,” she said ruefully. “Never had one of those before.”

Before we go further, you should know a few things about Ena. Though in her ninth decade on the planet, she’s still independent. In fact, she only began living alone for the first time in her life two years ago, after her husband passed. (And she loves it.)

She is more tech savvy than most people half her age; with technology journalists for both a daughter and a son-in-law, that was kind of unavoidable. And she doesn’t really need a system like Live!y — at least not yet. But one day she might, and as our population ages, so will millions of others, including maybe you and me.

A Live!y alternative
High-tech elder monitoring systems have been around for more than a decade, but most are vestiges of an older era. They tend to be ugly, expensive, require professional installation, and charge hefty monthly subscription fees. Live!y is none of those things.

How to Keep an Eye on Your Aging Parents Without Annoying the Crap Out of Them

For $150 plus $20 a month, you get a package with six sensors and a base station. Each sensor is the shape of a guitar pick and contains an accelerometer and a low-power Bluetooth chip that communicates with the base. Plug the station into the wall near the refrigerator and attach sensors to the fridge, doors, pill dispensers, and key fob using stickers on each device. Total setup time is less than 10 minutes.

imageThen you tell Live!y your parent’s typical routine. Does she take medicine once or twice a day, or at specified times? How many meals does she typically eat? How often does she get out? You can view real-time reports of her activities on a web portal or iOS app and get alerts if her activities don’t match the routine you’ve established.

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For example, if the key fob sensor is out of range for 15 minutes or more, it registers her as being away. If she’s not back by 10 p.m., Live!y sends you an alert (aka my mother-in-law’s curfew). If she doesn’t leave the house when she normally would, you get an alert for that, too.

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Technically, you won’t really know if your parent has taken her meds or actually eaten something; you’ll merely know that she moved her pill box at 10:37 a.m. or opened the fridge door six times between noon and 1 p.m. Still, that smidgen of data can be the difference between knowing your parent is up and about or that something is amiss. If her Live!y dashboard suddenly goes quiet, you’ll want to investigate. She could be having problems, or maybe the base station got unplugged; either way, you’ll need to take steps to find out.

One of the smartest things about Live!y is that it doesn’t automatically assume there’s a WiFi network or even an Internet connection. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, slightly more than half of seniors are online. So Live!y’s transmitter uses a cell network to transmit data to the app. And, once every two weeks, it sends each user a Live!yGram in the mail — a newsletter you can create by culling photos from Facebook, Instagram and other online sources to keep the oldsters in the loop.

The 411 on 911
It feels oddly intrusive to know exactly how many times my mother-in-law hits the fridge (31 last Saturday) or when she leaves the house. But she says it doesn’t bother her.

As I was attaching a sensor to her bedroom door, Ena asked an excellent question: “Is there a button I can push when I need someone?” The answer is no, but there will be soon.

Later this year, Live!y plans to introduce the Activity Pendant, a wearable button that allows seniors to connect directly to emergency response personnel. Once they press the oval-shaped, 2.2-inch-wide button, responders will call them or their family members back on a designated line to determine if 911 should be called. The Pendant will include an accelerometer and sophisticated algorithms that can determine if its wearer has fallen down (or if she just dropped the thing) and automatically summon help if needed.

The pendant will also serve as a Fitbit-like device that can keep track of the number of steps she’s taken and calories she’s burned each day. It will be included with future versions of the Live!y starter kit, says CEO Iggy Fanlo, and emergency response services will be available for a nominal monthly charge.

Eventually, Fanlo says, Live!y hopes to partner with other companies to build in the ability to measure sleep patterns, glucose and oxygen levels, and heartrate — turning it into a full-on remote medical monitoring system. For now, though, it’s just a slick and unobtrusive way to look in on your aging parents without getting in their faces.

To me, this is the real benefit of the revolution in cheap sensors and constant connectivity better known as the Internet of Things. Sure, being able to control your thermostat from your iPhone is cool, but the ability to live on your own for a few more years — or to stop worrying so much about aging parents who do — can be life-changing.

And if this technology lets my mother-in-law recapture some of her lost youth, if only ironically, then even better. 

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.