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Devices That Make Life Easier for Caregivers and Patients

By Nancy Wurtzel

The Alzheimer’s caregiving industry is ripe for innovation.  Currently, more than 17 million Americans are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.  As our population ages, and the disease affects more and more people, the number of unpaid caregivers will also steadily increase.

That’s why companies and entrepreneurs are scrambling to come up with new ideas for streamlining and improving Alzheimer’s care.

The challenge is to create products that solve problems, are reliable, and easy to master.  In fact, ease of use is critical to the already overburdened caregiver.  If a product is cumbersome and difficult to implement, it may not be used at all.

From personal experience as an Alzheimer’s caregiver, I know this to be true.

Six years ago, when my mom was in the moderate stages of Alzheimer’s disease, she was having difficulty remembering to take her medications.  Since taking the right pills at the right time is so important, I conducted some online research in hopes of locating a solution.  My search turned up a relatively new product, the electronic pill reminder/dispenser.

When my selected product arrived, I had difficulty programming it.  The directions were written for a high-level engineer rather than a consumer.  On the verge of giving up, I contacted the company.  After a few false starts, someone in their marketing department emailed me step-by-step directions which made perfect sense.  My persistence paid off as the little machine turned out to be a big help in providing care for my mom.

Since then, a lot of new medication dispensers have become available.  Prices have decreased, and the technology is much easier to program.

For instance, AARP recently gave the MedMinder high marks for ease of use and monitoring ability.  The digital MedMinder will flash a light when medications should be taken and then beeps if there is no action.  If the beep gets no response, then a recorded voice from a loved one will call out a reminder.  If the medications are still not taken, the person will receive a phone call while the caregiver simultaneously receives an email, text or call.  Additionally, caregivers can keep tabs on the medications through an online program.

Other products that have been improved and refined in the last few years include GPS tracking devices, home motion sensors, and video feeds.  Most of these products can now be accessed and tracked by computer, tablet or smartphone.

Everyone knows the “Help! I’ve fallen and can’t get up” device, which has been the punchline of countless jokes.  In reality, though, the technology is no laughing matter.  Not only has it saved lives, but it has evolved into a nearly $2 billion industry called mPERS, short for Mobile Personal Emergency Response Systems.

The concept is straightforward: An individual wears the mPERS, and the system tracks movement and location, detects falls and offers communication and help in case of an emergency.  Some systems monitor vital signs and can be used anywhere a cell phone works.  Other bells and whistles depend on how much you are willing to spend

An mPERS system can be helpful for those with mild-to-moderate memory issues.

Here’s what to look for in a mPers:

  • Pendant or bracelet options
  • Capabilities and features, plus ease in programming
  • Durability and waterproofing
  • ETL certified (an industry standard-testing organization)
  • Total costs, including activation and monthly fees

For someone who doesn’t yet need to wear a monitor 24/7, there are also enhanced mobile phones devices.  One example, LifeTrac MobileProtector is a compact, weather-proof, GPS locator-phone with a long battery life.

Don’t be fooled by its small size.  MobileProtector features include two-way voice communication with high power speakers, which is ideal for those with hearing problems.  In emergency situations, the user can use a single touch to auto call up to four phone numbers in a series based on no response.  The device can also detect falls.

Sometimes the most creative products evolve from first-hand experience.

Take Kenneth Shinozuka, whose grandfather was living with Alzheimer’s.  The disease caused his grandfather to wander during the nighttime hours, which meant sleepless nights for family caregivers.  Shinozuka, then a 15-year-old teenager, devised a small, wearable pressure sensor that alerts caregivers via smartphone app when the person stands.

Shinozuka tested the device on his grandfather more than 300 times and found it highly accurate with no false alarms.  While still in high school, Shinozuka presented his invention at the 2014 Google Science Fair and went on to receive the “Scientific American” magazine’s Science in Action Award.  Last year, Shinozuka gave a TED Talk that has been viewed 1.4 million times.

Currently, Shinozuka’s creation is being tested in nursing homes.

Sha Yao also had a grandparent with Alzheimer’s disease.  As her grandmother’s caregiver, Yao knew first-hand that mealtimes were one of the most challenging daily activities.

After her grandmother died, Yao wondered how she could improve life for those living with Alzheimer’s and for their caregivers. An industrial designer, Yao put her creative talents to work.

Although tweaking tableware for the Alzheimer’s person might be considered low-tech, Yao says years of thoughtful engineering went into designing the brightly-colored dining set.

Eatwell Tableware offers cups, silverware, bowls and a tray, all with gripping material on the bottom to prevent tipping.  Cup choices are streamlined with a rubber base or have large, easy-to-grip handles, while bowls come with right-angle sides and slanted bottoms, allowing for better food collection.  Spoons are designed with a curved, chunky handle for easy gripping.

The vibrant color palette of reds, blues and yellows is also a plus, since a 2014 Boston University study reveals that people living with dementia are more apt to consume food presented on brightly colored utensils.

Eatwell Tableware will soon be available for purchase.  This may be a great gift for my brother-in-law who is in the moderate stages of Alzheimer’s and has real difficulty eating on his own.

Caregivers shouldn’t be lulled into thinking that even the best technology will solve every need.  It won’t.  However, innovations may save time, streamline communications and even improve the quality of care.  Used right, technology may also give caregivers more peace of mind.  As a caregiver myself, I know you can’t put a price tag on that.