The number of older adults living with long-lasting illnesses continues to increase, and so does their need for in-home assistance. As a home-care provider, I’m often asked for recommendations on ways our clients could continue to live safely in their own homes. My desire is always to help the client achieve their goal, of aging at home, in the most economical way possible. Sometimes that means purchasing some sort of safety device.
We use devices in our homes everyday. It’s a convenience that makes our lives easier and more productive. So why does Echo and it’s counterparts give me pause? Because it’s often promoted as a device that could alleviate loneliness for seniors. Echo is a digital speaker than functions as more than a way to listen to music. When connected to a Wi-fi network, Echo becomes a voice-controlled personal assistant. This means that when directed, it will do its best to fulfill a request. For example, in the case of the senior person, it could be prompted by, “what time do I take my medication?” or “turn on the light in the stairway.” Without Echo, the senior would have to ask someone to help them with these simple tasks.
I love the idea of a device helping with medication reminders and turning on and off the lights, rather than the senior who may be prone to falls, walking in the dark to find the light switch. Why hire a person to do such a small task? If a devise could save us money, help us live safely in our homes, and allow us the dignity of continued independence, then it’s a no-brainer – use it! After all, we use our cell phone calendars and alerts and our smart home devices for the very same purpose. However, for a senior person, forgetting to take medicines at its correct time, is often not an isolated issue. One must view the senior person holistically before replacing human contact and engagement, with a digital devise.
Since Congress and federal regulatory agencies begun exploring ways to provide telehealth to the Medicare population a few years ago, we’ve had a movement towards digitized care. Now if you think for one second that the government is interested in telehealth for seniors, because it honors the senior person’s desire to age at home, then there’s a bridge I want to sell you . Most decisions, made by healthcare payor sources is based on cost savings. We all operate within the confines of our resources, no entity is immune to that necessity, so the fact that telehealth research is driven mostly by the need to reduce cost is not a bad thing. Reducing cost is vital. Telehealth development is a necessary pathway to making care affordable and accessible. But it has to operate with the best overall interest of the population it serves.
With developers making great in-roads on smart homes and the use of robots in healthcare, I see many advantages to the use of smart technology to enhance our quality of life, and quantity of years. My caution rises when we seem to operate in a vacuum. Relying on a devise to alleviate loneliness in any population, displays a tunnel vision approach to care. In my line of work, familial engagement is often infrequent because of work obligations, raising a family and geographical distance. The precious visits of family, or a caregiver, serves more than the purpose of the errand they may complete while with the seniorperson. It provides necessary human contact and warmth, to a life that is increasing in isolation and loneliness, as time goes on and the senior person outlives their spouse, friends and neighbors.
The National Council on Aging listed depression as one of the top ten chronic illnesses of people 65 years or older – above Alzheimer’s and dementia! I foresee a steep price that we all will pay, if we replace human contact and relationships, with a device that truly only provides limited safety, convenience and entertainment. Promoting a digital devices as a means of alleviating loneliness – one of the leading causes of depression and suicide – is a dangerous decision in my estimation. In all fairness to Amazon, it does not appear to be their marketing strategy that infuses Echo’s value with the human quality of friendship and companionship – a necessary need of those who are isolated – however, I was hard pressed to find any discouraging of this from Amazon or reviewers.