How a Smart Home Can Help You Age in Place


Link devices to build a complete picture

For caregivers and their loved ones, the value of a smart device is its ability to interact with other devices and assemble a big picture of a typical day at home, especially when an older adult lives alone, says Andy Miller, senior vice president for AARP Innovation Labs. Then when something seems off, a caregiver can be alerted. 

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“Oh yeah, yesterday was a tough day for Mom,” Miller says as an example. “She didn’t get out of bed at 8 like she normally does. She got out of bed at 10:30. She went to the bathroom six times yesterday when she normally goes three times. She didn’t open the refrigerator door at all. She didn’t turn the stove on. The TV was on for nine hours yesterday. When we were looking at the ambient sensors, she was sitting on the couch for seven hours. And now you start to get that picture: Oh, we have a problem.”

“What becomes more valuable [with smart devices] is when data reveals behavioral patterns that could alert a caregiver when something seems off.”

— Andy Miller, AARP Innovation Labs

Smart devices aren’t meant to replace communication — a phone call, video call or just stopping by. People need human interaction. But they can be a set of electronic eyes and ears that are less intrusive than the cutting-edge indoor cameras and always-listening microphones of a decade ago.

To showcase some of today’s smart devices and how they can help, let’s take a tour around the house. Some products might have a place in multiple rooms.

Start at the front door with video doorbells, digital locks

Doorbell cameras and smart locks are available at several price points. Video doorbells let you eyeball a visitor by peering at an app on your phone or another connected display. Some let you chat with the person.

You also can tell from afar if a package was delivered. A doorbell camera might even discourage a porch pirate or a burglar. But beware: Some models from lesser-known brands may not be as secure.

Digital smart locks are also about peace of mind, since they let you lock and unlock doors remotely and monitor comings and goings — perhaps of a loved one with dementia who wanders. And smart locks are convenient if you need to issue digital keys to health aides, house cleaners and family to unlock the door during designated times.

Add sensors, smart lights to main living areas

Indoors, a home may be equipped with a collection of IoT products, including motion sensors and smart lights that blend into your environment.

The most common among these devices is a smart speaker. Ask Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant to play music, deliver the weather forecast, answer questions, chat and control lighting or other devices.

You can automate tasks through a smart speaker, though it’s not always simple. You might tell a smart speaker to “start my day” and smart blinds open, traffic and news reports air, and the coffee maker connected to an inexpensive smart plug begins to brew.

Another potentially useful product is a smart thermostat, including models that automatically learn indoor climate preferences over time. When the thermostat detects its house is empty, it may turn on the furnace or air conditioner less often, shaving a few bucks off your energy bill. Since you can control a smart thermostat from anywhere, you can ready the house for your return via an app.

For many people, the core of a smart home is a smart television. Sure, you spend countless hours watching movies, TV shows, live news, sports and myriad streaming options. But you also can use a TV screen with a webcam for family video chats, telehealth calls with your doctor or virtual exercise sessions, or as a hub to control lights, security cameras and other connected gear.

Keep safety first in an older adult’s smart kitchen

Smart speakers are also popular in the kitchen for setting timers, dishing up recipes — viewable on models with screens — or playing music while cooking.

No smart plugs for stoves

Stoves can be a flash point, literally, in an older adult’s house.

A pot boiled dry or a pan with grease left unattended might be smoking yet not fully on fire. A smart smoke detector — available from brands such as Google Nest, Kidde and First Alert Onelink — sounds an alarm and can send alerts to as many smartphones as needed.

At the moment, a smart home can’t connect the dots to enable the next step for safety: A “dumb” stove can’t be shut off remotely. A 15-amp smart plug can turn off a light or a coffee pot, but the electricity required for a range means a bigger, 50-amp plug with no smart versions available.

FireAvert can turn off a stove when a smoke alarm sounds, but it lacks internet connectivity. Smarturns knobs can replace existing knobs on compatible gas or electric stoves and dispatch an alert to a smartphone if a stove has been left on for a designated time and sensors detect the kitchen is empty. But with Smarturns, a stove must be switched off manually.

Expensive smart appliances may be over-the-top luxuries.

Whiz-bang Wi-Fi-connected refrigerators allow contents to be seen in an app if you need a look while at the supermarket. In some cases, they can even suggest recipes based on the ingredients on hand.

Smart stoves will let you or a caregiver shut an oven off remotely. But Orlov is skeptical.

“I don’t think you want a smart oven,” she says. “Let’s think about what could go wrong.”

A less expensive alternative is the motion-sensitive iGuardStove, which connects to an existing appliance and shuts it off when it’s unattended after a set time. iGuardStove, on backorder as the Seattle company prepares a new model due in the fall, can send a smartphone alert when someone enters the kitchen or the auto shutoff feature kicks in.

Microwave ovens may be the safest option for warming or preparing food if the user realizes that placing metal inside it is a no-no. Some smart microwaves, which connect to the internet and can be controlled by a smartphone app, are also convection ovens. Unlike conventional microwaves, they can roast meat and toast food. 

Older adults might not use some of a smart microwave’s features, such as automated cooking programs, but may appreciate that a microwave shuts itself off when its timer is done and beeps a reminder until its door is opened. A smart microwave can be turned off remotely via app if a family member not in the house needs to intervene. And if you decide to use a prepared-meal delivery service, those meals often can be warmed in a microwave.


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