As the first baby boomers turn 65 this year, high-tech is gradually making its way into the lives – and homes – of older folks. A look at the tablets, sensors, foot boards and other gadgets seniors can use to get caught up and connected.
PARIS -- The classic alarm button worn around the necks of some 450,000 French seniors is starting to look dated. All over France, more cutting edge ways of calling for emergency help are being tested: tablets, sensors, and intelligent watches. Mere gadgets? Not really.
Surprising but true: the touch tablet is well-adapted to older people, even the least tech-oriented. No cables, no complicated data structures, just single-function touch points. The result is that tablets can be used as an all-purpose communication tool: to keep up with the news, check the weather, play games, or conduct video conference calls with one's children, grand-children, and home-bound friends.
The tablet is also useful in linking various care givers, from nurses to home health aides. Again, videoconferencing can be used for group calls with friends or doctors and to transmit physiological data -- such as weight and blood sugar level -- to doctors.
If the market is just emerging, the results look promising. Serviligne, founded in 2008, has installed several hundred tablets in Nice, Marseille, Strasbourg, and Grenoble. As a complementary service, the company provides each user with the name of an association that makes maintenance house-calls, Olivier Clément, Serviligne's director, explains.
Competitor Intervox, which has been bought by Legrand, the world leader in electric sockets, has for several months been conducting tests with tablets involving 300 people in Creuse. And in Haute-Vienne, an invitation to bid has been launched to equip several hundred households. Orange Labs also has a special "senior" tablet, as does the start-up Ezodis. Ezodis premiered its "TVsentiel" terminal in 25 homes in Val-de-Marne with the backing of the Val-de-Marne General Council.
And Japanese giant Toshiba, which leads a consortium in the Bas-Rhin, has just equipped some 15 retirement homes. This ambitious experimental project, geared to future telemedical plans, is considered to be "a global test that could be duplicated in Japan as well as other European countries," says Jeannot Allouche, who is piloting the project. The cost to each person is between 40 and 60 euros a month. A prerequisite is that the home already be connected to the Internet and have an Orange, Free, Numericable, Darty or other modem (cost around 30 euros per month).
High-tech help is on the way
Every year, 450,000 seniors who have suffered falls end up in the emergency room. Falls are the first cause of death by accident for those over 65. Available from Legrand is a "light path" for home use made up of several infrared sensors mounted on the walls to activate the lights when a person gets up during the night, to go to the toilet for example. The system, which was trial-tested in Creuse, reduced the number of falls by 30% and costs a few hundred euros.
Its competitor Osram, in partnership with Diroy, has come up with a universal foot board called Sweet Light that is slated to be launched in January 2012. It consists of a movement sensor and lighting and costs 150 euros. When the room is dark, one foot out of bed and the lighting goes on. Versions that function both day and night are also available.
They aren't any larger than a coin and can be installed anywhere in the house. They can also be worn. Thus, captors that record a serious fall, or activity, are worn on the wrist like a watch. The bracelet may contain a shock detector, an accelerometer that measures the speed of movements, and a pressure sensor. At the least sign of something unusual, a signal is sent to the monitoring center. Among those selling the devices are Orange, Toshiba, General Electric, Intervox, Vivago, and Senioralerte.
At the least sign of something unusual, a signal is sent to the monitoring center. Other sensors mounted on the walls detect certain gases (carbon monoxide, butane, propane), smoke, flooding, or drops in temperature. A classic assistance plan costs around 20 euros a month plus an additional charge per sensor installed.
Already well-installed in the United States and the UK, electronic pill dispensers are also making their way into seniors' daily lives in France. Four times a day, a dispenser bell rings reminding the person to take their medication. If they don't, the bell sounds again.
But don't these objects, conceived as aids for medical or social service teams, risk dehumanizing the daily life of older people even more? Experiments show that, contrary to expectations, older people are fairly open to such aids if they are paired with human contact. The problems lie elsewhere.
The new technologies are in the process of revolutionizing the balance of inter-generational relationships. "People have to accept relating to the older members of the family in different ways," says Didier Courquin of Intervox. Some older folks with tablets think their tablets are malfunctioning because having sent e-mails to their children or grandchildren they fail to get a response.
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Photo - Ollie Grafoord