Using Technology To Help Care For The Elderly

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NPR's Melissa Block talks to Omar Gallaga of the Austin American-Statesman about the technology and new services available to help care for the elderly.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

So, if you're caring for an aging parent, how much might this high tech approach cost? That's one question we'll put now to Omar Gallaga. He covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman and for All Tech Considered. Omar, welcome back.

OMAR GALLAGA: Thanks for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: And we've been hearing about these sensors in refrigerators, radio frequency tags on pill bottles. What is making this technology more accessible now and what's the price tag for folks?

GALLAGA: Well, a lot of it is that hardware is getting so much cheaper, things like gyroscopes that can tell whether you're upright or lying down. Motion sensors, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, you know, the kinds of things that we see on the Nintendo Wii or in our smartphones, that stuff is getting so cheap that it's starting to become imbedded everywhere.

In terms of cost, that's very early because a lot of it is still being funded by grants and research. Not a lot of it is out actually where consumers can get to it. But the services that are out there, some of them with names like eNeighbor and iReminder and Lifeline, there are costs associated with installing the hardware, the sensors within the house, which can cost, you know, up to eight to $10,000. And then there's usually a monthly fee for the actual service for monitoring and that can start at anywhere from $10 for a very basic service up to $100 for 24/7 home monitoring with a live person kind of keeping track.

So those costs can add up and families will have to weigh how much that costs versus putting someone in, say, an assisted living home.

BLOCK: And, Omar, we were hearing about consumers investing in these devices on their own. Are we at a point now where hospitals, doctors are using the technology, maybe prescribing it for their patients?

GALLAGA: Some hospitals and some doctors are using some form of home monitoring. They may send a patient home after a heart attack with a device that can transmit heart data, for instance. But one of the problems is that a lot of these devices generate so much data, you know, weight, blood pressure they're consistently monitoring 24 hours a day, that a lot of doctors don't know what to do with this amount of data.

I mean, we're talking about terabytes of data if you have a lot of patients. So that's become an issue, you know, where to store all this data. And in some cases it's not necessarily the hospitals or the doctors that are monitoring the patients. Sometimes there is a third party, almost like the way you would hire a security firm to monitor your home that will be keeping track of a senior, be keeping track of where they are and if there's any alerts. And they will be the ones to contact EMS or a doctor or a firefighter if there's a problem.

BLOCK: And, Omar, what do you see as the next frontier for thinking about high tech caregiving?

GALLAGA: Well, I think, you know, as we're seeing the stuff that's being embedded in our phones and all of our devices that sort of sensors everywhere, you know, the future kind of looks like we're going to have sensors in toothbrushes and cans of cola. But one other area I think is really interesting is sort of robot caregivers. Things like robots that could help dispense medication.

What's called companion robots that can be almost like pets, but would be much easier to take care of - not so much with the curbing. But the trick is to make these kind of likeable and useful. But I think there's definitely some very practical applications for, say, a robot that can dispense medications of the correct dosage at the right time.

BLOCK: Okay, Omar, thanks very much.

GALLAGA: Thanks for having me and we're going to have a lot more information about all of this. It's a very big, hot topic, and it continues to grow, on the All Tech Considered blog at NPR.org/alltech.

BLOCK: Great. Omar Gallaga of the Austin America-Statesman.

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