I’m sure you can relate to this. My parents want to stay in the house they’ve lived in for over 40 years – the house where my sisters and I grew up – as long as they can. It’s their home, the center point of family memories, holiday dinners in the dining room, cribbage games on the back porch, mom’s jams cooked on the stovetop and her fruit pies in the oven… the list is endless.
I’m not surprised they don’t really want to move – nor should they have to. Like so many seniors, they feel most comfortable at home where the heart truly is. And haven’t they earned the right to spend their golden years in comfort in a place of their choosing?
“I can’t see us moving,” my mom told me recently. “We’ve got everything we need right here, why would we want to downsize or move into a seniors’ residence?”
I’m sure it’s a sentiment echoed by many – the desire to stay in their home instead of being packed up, purged of belongings, and trundled off to a home for the aged. It’s like you’re moving into a group residence with a bunch of strangers, expected to get along with them, and enjoy Tuesday night bingo and card games on designated afternoons. It’s a ready-made artificial family, much like the TV show Big Brother where new house guests arrive to cohabitate and show off their big personalities, but there’s no game or $500,000 cash prize to compete for.
I’m not saying that caregivers and residences aren’t welcoming or don’t offer good care, but it’s about spending your final days on your own terms. Not with pureed foods and bedtime curfews.
I’m part of the growing number of adults that are looking after their own families while keeping an eye on their aging parents. I know it’s not going to be an easy ride when they start experiencing serious health problems and their safety could be at risk. What happens if Dad takes a fall on the stairs? What if Mom forgets to turn off the oven? What if, what if…
The problem is, we have an aging population, and older seniors who need home care services like hot meals delivered, home cleaning, even help with bathing and personal care, may not have access to these services. Why? Social funding cutbacks for one, and sheer numbers: There won’t be enough service providers to go around – and there certainly won’t be enough hospital beds or spaces in senior residences to meet the rising demand.
Sadly, there’s also the stigma of asking for help. The older generation grew up with the notion that asking for help was a sign of weakness. It was shameful. They don’t want help because they don’t want to feel ashamed of needing the help. Science has shown that good mental health is a booster for our immune system, helping us to fight off sickness. For seniors, the stress and anxiety over needing assistance with certain things are also compromising their mental health and, in turn, their ability to combat germs and stay well.
On top of all this, experts say dementia is like a ticking time bomb. Estimates suggest that 44 million people worldwide now have dementia and this number is expected to triple by 2050 as the global population ages.
Now let me be clear. Dementia is not a natural part of aging, although it’s often associated with senior health. It’s an umbrella term for the symptoms of different brain diseases that cause all kinds of problems with memory, language, mental agility, judgment and understanding. The most common of these brain diseases is Alzheimer’s, which accounts for almost two-thirds of cases.
Some medical treatments slow the progression of dementia, but there is no cure, and 24-hour care is not always practical or affordable. But this growing global problem is getting attention, and scientists have started to look at ways that technology can support people with dementia and help them live independently for as long as possible. These devices will not only help people with dementia, but seniors in general, like my parents, to live safe and healthy in their homes.
There are home care robots to clean your floors, and remind you when to eat, where food is stored and help with meal preparation. There are digital electronic sensor systems that alert you when a door is opened or an appliance has been left on.
Scientists in the U.K. have developed a special carpet, fitted with plastic optical fibers, which is designed to detect and even predict when people fall at home. There are also sophisticated global positioning system (GPS) tagging devices that track the whereabouts and activities of people who wear them, allowing family members to keep watch at a distance.
Given the aging population, senior health is now on the radar.
These amazing devices go well beyond assistive supports for your shower and toilet, or the electronic chair lift to take you up and down stairs. They’re not about pushing people into the technological age and computer literacy. The idea is they fit into people’s lives easily and seamlessly, requiring little or no instruction.
You may have heard about “smart” homes to make living easier and more environmentally-conscious. Now sensor technology is used in cities to provide information on things like where water pipes are leaking and how much garbage is going into garbage bins.
IBM is one of the leaders in developing smart home technology, identifying senior health as a priority. They’ve worked with the city council of the Italian city of Bolzano, for example, to install a network of sensors that monitors the homes of seniors who live alone, keeping an eye on temperatures, C02 levels and water leaks.
Another company, Abilia, located in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the U.K., has developed a wall-mounted iPad-like device to provide all kinds of services, including a spoken reminder about daily tasks, such as when to take medicine. This is key for people with dementia so they can follow their medication as prescribed.
The system also gives spoken alerts when a stove is left on or a person opens an exit door in the middle of the night. These verbal alerts can make all the difference to someone with mental decline who may be forgetful of daily tasks, appointments, even friends and family. This particular system even has an onscreen photo album where you can look at photos of people with their names clearly labelled. It also offers a calendar and memo board to plug in special dates, birthdays and other things to remember – something we all could use!
These are all things that can go a long way to helping seniors live comfortably at home, maintaining their dignity, self-confidence and ability to relax and enjoy their lives. That’s a big deal. Those feel-good emotions play into keeping their immune systems strong. Living in their own home with the right supports boosts their happiness and their health.
I know I want my parents to have that kind of comfort and health for as long as they possibly can. Now when it comes to senior health, technology is onside to help.
Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.
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