LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
We're reporting this week on ways to help people stay in their homes as they grow older. You've seen that lady in the television commercial with the panic button around her neck?
(Soundbite of commercial)
Unidentified Woman: I've fallen and I can't get up!
Unidentified Man: We're sending help immediately, Mrs. Fletcher.
WERTHEIMER: Well, hi-tech monitoring has come a long way. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, there is a growing market in technology that lets adult children keep an eye on their parents 24 hours a day.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: It's dinner time in Savannah, Georgia. Colleen Henry is bringing food to her parents' ranch house.
(Soundbite of door opening)
Ms. COLLEEN HENRY: Knock, knock.
LUDDEN: Her mother's watching TV.
Ms. HENRY: Hey Momma.
LUDDEN: Colleen heads to the kitchen to dish out meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans and squash. Her mom suffers brain damage from a stroke. With her dad's health failing as well, Colleen's been helping out more and more in recent years.
Ms. HENRY: Here's your ketchup. And there's your salt shaker.
LUDDEN: Edward and Lavinia Fitzgerald settle around the table. It's a normal dinner scene but for one thing: there's actually an extra guest at this meal.
Mr. EDWARD FITZGERALD: Oh, that's Denise. That's our - that's our goodest friend.
LUDDEN: She's waving at you.
Mr. FITZGERALD: Yeah.
LUDDEN: Denise Cady is waving from a computer monitor that sits just next to the kitchen table.
Ms. DENISE CADY (Tele-caregiver): And how's the weather down there?
Mr. FITZGERALD: Couldn't beat it with a stick.
Ms. CADY: Oh my goodness.
Mr. FITZGERALD: It's good.
LUDDEN: Denise is what's called a tele-caregiver, and for two years she's been checking on the Fitzgerald's every evening from way up in Lafayette, Indiana. She joins in mealtime chatter, just like a friend who's dropped by. She asks after family and neighbors. She takes it in stride when Colleen's mom, Lavinia, gets the sillies, as she often does.
Ms. HENRY: Momma.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CADY: Oh Lavinia, you are really tickled right now.
LUDDEN: You might think this isn't so strange. Lots of people use the computer to Skype with far-flung relatives. But it turns out Denise can see almost every move the Fitzgerald's make. Their house is wired with video cameras, like something out of a sci-fi movie, though you can't tell at first.
Mr. FITZGERALD: There's one of the cameras right there.
LUDDEN: Oh. Oh, I see. It's in like an enclosed bubble in the ceiling.
Mr. FITZGERALD: Yeah, that's it.
LUDDEN: I see it turning now.
You can actually hear the camera swivel. There's one in the front that shows who comes in the door. It can pan down a hall to show who goes into the bathroom and bedroom, but it can't see into those rooms. A second camera surveys the living room, dining room, and kitchen. Colleen admits the notion made her wary.
Ms. HENRY: Well, at first I was thinking all sorts of things: my dad sitting around in his underwear, my mother - I just thought, oh my God these people are going to see everything, you know. And that part of it, it bothered me.
LUDDEN: But after her mom broke her ankle two years ago, Colleen became overwhelmed with the duties of caring for her aging parents. And she worried constantly when she wasn't with them.
Ms. HENRY: I know that the burden's on me if something happened.
LUDDEN: Desperate for help, Colleen discovered a new video monitoring service and signed them up. It's turned out to be a huge relief for her dad as well. As with many elderly spouses, his wife's condition has thrown Edward into the exhausting role of full-time caregiver. Now with the cameras on, he can get out of the house - for daily mass, and a gab session with his buddies at McDonald's.
Mr. FITZGERALD: We go down there and sit around and talk. That telephone'll ring and I'm on my way. I'm home in five minutes.
LUDDEN: Denise or another tele-caregiver call Edward's cell phone if they notice Lavinia staying in the bathroom a bit too long. They've called when, in fact, she has fallen and couldn't get up. They also alert Colleen, and even call in the middle of the night if something seems wrong.
Mr. FITZGERALD: They're diligent, they're on the ball. And I like it.
LUDDEN: What about this hi-tech invasion of his privacy? Edward says he never actually worried about it.
Mr. FITZGERALD: Ah, you know, that wouldn't bother me. What's worried me more than anything else is bringing strangers into your house.
LUDDEN: Strangers do come in. A home health aide gets Lavinia bathed and dressed every day. Colleen says she's grateful the cameras can monitor the quality of that care.
(Soundbite of slamming noise and bell)
Mr. FITZGERALD: Amen, brother Ben. Make a rhyme every time.
LUDDEN: Looks good. Are those fresh green beans?
Ms. HENRY: Yes, they are.
LUDDEN: The company that's monitoring the Fitzgerald house is called ResCare. Here's the dinner scene from their offices in Indiana.
Mr. FITZGERALD: Amen, brother Ben.
LUDDEN: Ohhh, looks good. Are those fresh green beans?
Ms. HENRY: Yes, they are.
LUDDEN: Tele-caregiver Denise Cady sits before two large computer screens. On one she sees the Fitzgeralds. Cady can also see thumbnail video images of two dozen other homes - she'll check on each one over the course of her shift. Client's children can log into the same video Denise watches and monitor parents themselves.
This long-distance care isn't cheap. ResCare's services start at $600 a month, and can run well over a thousand, depending on how much active monitoring is needed. But that's still a lot less than the average nursing home.
Mr. NEL TAYLOR (Spokesperson, ResCare): Primarily the people that are using this at this time are those that are in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's or dementia.
LUDDEN: ResCare spokesperson Nel Taylor says a tele-caregiver can remind someone to take their medication at a certain time. They can alert a relative if someone appears confused or in distress. They can also help with the simple tasks of daily life, like the time a client was about to sit down to breakfast.
Ms. TAYLOR: And the tele-caregiver zoomed in on the frying pan and said maybe you oughta cook the sausage and the eggs a little longer. The eggs look kinda runny and the sausage is pink.
LUDDEN: No doubt starring in your own daily reality show won't appeal to everyone. But there are all kinds of remote monitoring systems popping up to keep tabs on a fast-aging population. Most use motion sensors, and they alert children to every mundane detail of a parents' day: when they get in and out of bed, sit on the sofa, open the refrigerator door, turn on the A/C. ResCare's Taylor says all the research and start-up companies are driven by this simple equation...
Ms. TAYLOR: At the same time that we have this huge population of aging folks, we have a shrinking population of care-givers, of younger people who are able to provide the care that these older people are going to need. And if we don't find other ways, then we are really going to be in big trouble in the future.
Ms. HENRY: This is for you for later.
Mr. FITZGERALD: Okay.
LUDDEN: In Savannah, Colleen scoops out some extra banana pudding for her parents to snack on.
Ms. HENRY: I was going to leave the whole dish but I thought better of it, Denise.
Ms. CADY: It would be gone by tomorrow morning, I'm telling you.
LUDDEN: Colleen says she figured video monitoring would help her parents stay healthy and at home. She had no idea they would also gain a friend.
Ms. HENRY: You see how old people, they're just lonely. And this makes mamma and daddy happy. So I was happy about that aspect, you know? It makes me not so - feel so guilty when I run in, here's your dinner, I'm outta there.
LUDDEN: As Denise and the Fitzgerald's keep chatting, Colleen gathers her dishes.
Ms. HENRY: All right, I'll see you tomorrow. Bye.
LUDEDEN: She leaves her parents for the night, reassured that they're not really alone.
(Soundbite of door closing)
LUDDEN: Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: You can see what that video from the Fitzgerald's house looks like at our website, npr.org. And this evening on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Jennifer reports on houses designed with aging in mind.
It's NPR News.