Elder Care: High Tech Makes for Low Anxiety

Seniors--and their caregivers--have more tools now


Business Week - November 20, 2000

Written by Ellen Neuborne

When Ellen Taylor realized this year that her 86-year-old mother may not be able to live independently for much longer, she began searching for a nursing home. Friends gave her lots of advice, but she wanted more objective data. So she turned to the Internet.

Online, she discovered CareScout.com, one of many new Web sites that assist both the elderly and caregivers alike. CareScout helped Taylor find a home in a preferred location that met her religious needs. She was also pleased with the site's ratings system, which ranks facilities based on state inspection results, quality of care, and bed availability. While she still hasn't made a final decision, CareScout data have given her an edge in what is a difficult process.

From specially equipped cell phones to new Web resources that cover such topics as assisted living, ''technology is extending the caregiver's reach'' and allowing older people more independence, says Joseph Coughlin, director of the Age Lab, an elder-care research facility at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Many tools, which are targeted to adults with aging parents, are educational. Take Caregiver.org, run by the 23-year-old Family Caregiver Alliance in San Francisco. The site is a simply designed library of information on everything from health care to financial planning. Visitors can also find online support groups and question elder-care professionals via e-mail.

PILL REMINDERS. For-profit companies are behind other useful sites such as the popular CareGuide.com, which has a directory of elder-care providers and sells online everything from incontinence products to walkers. CareGuide also offers a step-by-step assessment that asks a series of questions and guides users to appropriate content on the site. While even the best sites tend to offer general information, experts say they're still a big help. ''We find people are coming to professionals more informed,'' says Erica Karp, director of Northshore Elder-care Management, an Evanston (Ill.) home-care provider.

Some sites are moving from information to advice. That's the mission of CareScout.com, which is run by Robert Bua, a former nursing-home industry professional who devised his own ratings system in 1997. The ratings are based on state and federal data that measure quality of care and also factor in the views of field scouts--health-care professionals who agree to provide assessments. Bua released the data in a book, The Inside Guide to America's Nursing Homes (Warner Books, $24.99), then brought the system to the Net earlier this year. Visitors can view the ratings for free as often as they like; more in-depth reports are available for a fee.

Technology is also making it easier to provide day-to-day care. For example, several clever reminder devices are addressing one of the most prevalent problems among the elderly: failure to take medications properly--or to take them at all. An interesting solution comes from Smartmeds.com, a wireless service developed by specialty pharmaceuticals maker Infu-Tech in partnership with AT&T Wireless (AWE) and some health maintenance organizations.

NOVELTY. The novelty of Smartmeds is that it delivers critical health-care information, such as notification to take medications, via cell-phone calls. Now available in New York state, seniors can sign up through their HMOs, which pick up the cost. ''The advantage of wireless is that the patient doesn't have to be home'' to receive notification, says Jack Rosen, CEO of Smartmeds.com. The company also is developing services that will let consumers refill prescriptions and get test results.

New software that works on a Palm will achieve a similar goal. The $50 On-Time-Rx program, which you can get via pillsinyourpalm.com, allows users to enter their own data and medication schedule. The Palm beeps an alarm and displays a set of instructions at the appropriate time. One device can be programmed for more than one person.

While wireless aids are at the cutting edge, more conventional technology may get the same job done. E-Pill.com (www.epill.com) offers a $79 wristwatch that vibrates when it's time to take medication. This is especially helpful for those who are hard of hearing. E-Pill also sells a $249 automatic dispenser, designed to make it simpler to take a great many different pills every day. You or a visiting nurse load up the battery-operated device with medication--usually up to two weeks' worth--and program it to sound an alarm and dispense the pills at the correct times. Like many elder-tech products, E-Pill devices are for use by the elderly but marketed to their children. The adult-child caregiver is most likely to seek a technical solution to an elder-care problem, says E-pill President Stefan Solvell.

A big part of the caregiver's job is communicating with the senior in his or her charge, especially if the two are separated by a long distance. To keep the communication channels humming, software developer Jeffrey Pepper in 1999 founded ElderVision, a Pittsburgh company that is devoted to helping technophobic seniors get online. His system, Touchtown, replaces the mouse and keyboard with voice and touch activation. Instead of typing an e-mail address, for instance, a person can send mail by touching an onscreen photo of the intended receiver. ''This is a new front end to make computers accessible to a population that really needs to stay connected,'' says Pepper. He is focusing on selling the system to assisted-living facilities; three have tested the software in Pittsburgh, and Pepper is in talks with more than 80 sites to roll out the program next year.

Coughlin's Age Lab at MIT is developing more products for use by the elderly themselves. Among its futuristic projects: smart cars that use voice and visual prompts to make automobiles safer for older drivers to operate, and customized software to dispense appropriate diet and home-care advice. Whether Web-based or not, technological solutions promise to help care for an aging society.

By ELLEN NEUBORNE


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