Veterans life insurance

You can have a robot for a roommate

How technology can help people age in place and address worrying predictions of a shortage of caregivers

One of the most emotionally charged and difficult conversations a family can have is about what to do when an aging parent can no longer live independently – at least not fully. Most of us want to retain our independence for as long as possible, while loved ones may worry about our ability to manage it safely.

Evelyn C. smiling with her VetAssist companion | Credit: Courtesy of Evelyne C.

These days, however, technology can make life alone safer. It serves as a bridge, an exit from home, a connection to the experts on the other side who are there to help you. It also provides the elderly with cyber pets and “cyber sidekicks” that combat loneliness without needing to be bathed or fed. The New York State Department of Aging was sufficiently impressed with these devices to announcement he would start distributing them to the elderly who need them the most.

“It’s wonderful for me to be able to speak and get an answer.”

In addition to fighting loneliness, these gadgets can save lives. “For several days, I was getting weaker and weaker,” says Bonita Hoyle, an 86-year-old grandmother in New Mexico. “One night I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and thought, ‘Enough. “I said, ‘Alexa, call for help'”.

Saying those words, the system connected her to the company’s emergency dispatch team, which resulted in an extended hospital stay. She is now back home, feeling better. She thinks technology – it’s called a companion – saved her life.

You choose who to call if you need help

The Alexa-enabled medical alert system, one of many tech products designed to help lonely seniors, is operated by SmartCompanion Care, a new affiliate of Veterans Home Care. This service has helped more than 20,000 veterans and their surviving spouses access their VA Assistance and Attendance benefits to receive in-home care and other care at no cost. The company developed the technology for veterans and their families – and it’s free, as part of a certain veterans benefit – but now anyone elderly or disabled can buy it.

A man standing outside a building.  Next Avenue, veterinarian
David Laiderman CEO VHC – Horizontal | Credit: Courtesy of David Laiderman

SmartCompanion costs $250 to set up, which covers the cost of installing and programming all the hardware — typically a smart router with battery backup, an Echo Show video display with battery backup, and multiple Echo Dot smart speakers. Other companies offer robotic cats ($124.99), dogs ($139.99), and now birds ($64.99).

David Laiderman, CEO of Veterans Home Care and SmartCompanion Care LLC, said his product connects with his company’s emergency response team. “The Companion is personalized for each individual and pre-programmed for simple setup,” he says. “Seniors can say ‘Call my son’ for a video or audio call. Commercially purchased Alexa devices are not pre-programmed to dial 911 in an emergency.”

Unlike other options that work with the press of a button, the VetAssist Companion only works with your voice: you can tell it to call someone and it dials the number for you. It also works for video calls. Because it works with Alexa, you can also use it for dozens of other tasks, from reminding you to take your pills to listening to the news or playing games. With Alexa, if you say something the right way, it happens.

Hoyle says she also uses the Alexa-enabled device for routine tasks, including as a timer. “It’s wonderful for me to be able to talk and get an answer,” she says. “I have macular degeneration, so I can’t see well. I dare not put anything on the stove without a timer.”

“We knew it was time to reinvent senior care,” says Laiderman. “The launch of our VetAssist Companion was already underway to address pre-pandemic caregiver shortages and rising costs. Caregiver shortages are cost-related and are expected to worsen. […] We have stepped up our technology development to reduce the isolation and loneliness of housebound seniors during the COVID pandemic.”

Responding to forecasted caregiver shortages

Paul Osterman, professor of human resources and management at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently concluded that by 2030 there will be a national shortage of 151,000 paid caregivers and 3.8 million unpaid family caregivers. A decade later, the gap will grow to 355,000 paid workers and 11 million family caregivers.

Evelyn Chernetz, who lives in an elderly community in Florida, also finds the technology useful, especially when it sends her alerts. “It reminds me of doing so many things that I wouldn’t remember doing otherwise,” she says, adding that when her daughters contact her, they’re “pleasantly surprised” at how quickly she goes through her to-do list. do now .

Like the Chernetz girls, Erika Hilliard, a working mom in Texas, recommended her mom try the Companion System. His mother lives in a retirement community.

“It’s helped me keep my sanity,” she says, as the technology provides 24/7 protection in an emergency. “A video chat is all she needs,” she adds.

Yet the reality is that no technology works perfectly every time. There may also be privacy issues. Pet robots, which look and can mimic the behavior of dogs or sealed, come with their own challenges. A robotic pet may not soil the carpet, but it can be used for constant surveillance, turning an assisted living facility or nursing home into a reality television set.

Even if no one is monitoring or tracking in real time, location tracking, voice recording and other data can be stolen by hackers and sold on the dark web. It could reveal intimate moments alongside increasingly personal user data, such as daily routines and locations.

Are these devices secure? Are they safe?

An older woman sitting on a patio bench.  Next Avenue, veterinarian
Bonita Hoyle | Credit: Courtesy of Bonita Hoyle

Not all technologies are equally risky, of course. Laiderman, for example, claims that its service, which uses military-grade encryption, is fully compliant with HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act from 1996, and comes with a privacy guarantee.

Something else to consider: the ethics of these companionship schemes, including whether they may confuse or unduly mislead people with dementia. Some systems can actually increase in-person isolation, much like social media or other screen-based activities.

Yet many families say these issues pale in comparison to the potential benefits.

“Surprisingly, we found that privacy is not an issue in the post-implementation phase,” write the authors of a document published in the International Journal of Medical Informatics in September 2019.

A “game changer” for some families

“Older adults in the articles reviewed experienced no negative impact of technology on their privacy,” they write. And in several studies, “older people had positive feelings about maintaining their privacy while using technology and were not afraid that using technology would compromise their privacy.”

Although protections such as two-factor authentication and data encryption reduce the risk of privacy breaches, in our networked world, we often trade privacy for convenience. This is exactly what can happen when we turn on a device with a camera or microphone, because so much of our world is recorded and turned into data, then shared through the internet and on platforms like Alexa, Apple Homekit or Google Assistant. . And it’s not just laptops, tablets and cell phones. It’s basically any smart device in the internet of things that detects you or your voice, from doorbells and televisions to thermostats and vacuum cleaners.

It’s a balancing act: the technology needs to know enough to keep you safe while protecting your privacy. The system may know your daily routines, but in most cases it won’t share them.

“My husband says it was a game-changer,” says Hilliard, the Texas working mother. “It helps him, but it also helps the family.”

Jeannette Beebe
Jeannette Beebe is a data-driven freelance journalist covering public health, science and technology. She supported The COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic as a reporter and member of the editorial/comms team for a year, shortly after its launch in March 2020. Her reporting has appeared in TIME, The Daily Beast, Scientific American, Consumer Reports, Fast Company and elsewhere. She also works as an audio storyteller, from reporting for NPR/WHYY to producing for Darknet Diaries, a cybercrime podcast. Her work as a freelance recorder/producer has been featured on the BBC, Gimlet Media and NPR/ProPublica’s ‘Lost Mothers’ series, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for explanatory reporting. She has an AB in English from Princeton, and she writes a daily newsletter for the Center for Cooperative Media.
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