Hey Google: How smart technology can help people age in place

If you’re having trouble organizing your medications or your smartphone just isn’t smart enough to help you open the door, Stan Cassidy Rehab Center may have the answer.

The Fredericton facility offers hands-on smart technology training to people over 55 and seniors with caregivers.

The six-week course takes place in the center’s smart home, set up like a regular apartment, albeit with lots of cool, if slightly confusing, gadgets.

Marla Calder is an occupational therapist at the Stan Cassidy Rehabilitation Center. She is the lead researcher on the smart home project for the elderly. (Submitted by Marla Calder)

Marla Calder, an occupational therapist and co-researcher on the project, said it helps participants learn how different items actually work in the bedroom, bathroom and kitchen.

“We’ve developed hands-on educational modules that we can use in the community and teach adults how to use this technology to gain independence,” Calder said. “This is another strategy that we hope will help combat social isolation and for [people] to become more comfortable with technology.”

Google Home and Amazon Alexa on display in the smart home suite at the Stan Cassidy Rehabilitation Center in Fredericton. Participants are taught how to use these devices to set alarms, turn lights on and off, and lock doors. (Submitted by Marla Calder)

Being comfortable with technology

Emma Kroken, the project’s research coordinator and developer of the learning modules, said the weekly classes spend the first hour demonstrating how to use the technology, and then there is time to play and get more comfortable using the items.

“They get a chance to learn new things and go home and try them and then come back the next week and ask questions,” Kroken said.

Classes cover basics such as how to control lights, window shades, door locks and security cameras using a smartphone, tablet or smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo Dot and Google Home.

From there, the lessons move on to more complex questions, such as how to spot fraud and how to create a strong password.

Technical devices for turning on lights, clearly labeled, are used in Stan Cassidy’s smart home apartment. (Submitted by Emma Croken)

By 2038, 31.3% of New Brunswick’s population is expected to be over the age of 65, according to aging strategy for New Brunswick, but this kind of information is important for people of all ages.

Medication management is critical to staying independent and aging at home, which is why Stan Cassidy’s team demonstrated the use of smart pill boxes to track when and what pills should be taken each day.

“Even just using technology to set medication reminders is something that can really prevent hospital readmissions or really serious health outcomes,” Kroken said.

She adds that many of the class participants are excited and eager to learn how to use the devices they have at home.

“They have technology at home, a lot of it, and they just don’t know where to start. They’re both overwhelmed and scared,” Kroken said. “When [they] come in and play with our stuff, we can get them out of any situation they get into.”

The bedroom in the smart home apartment, where the elderly can interact with devices in a place that mimics the home environment. (Submitted by Emma Croken)

Emily Reed, an assistant professor in UNB’s School of Nursing, said that while some older adults love technology and are eager to use it, others fear that by choosing something like remote monitoring, they will lose contact with a personal assistant.

“This is not intended to be a substitute for home care. They still want people to come see them. They want physical help and company,” Reid said.

Clear labels are printed on all devices in the smart home bundle for learning purposes. (Submitted by Emma Croken)

Barriers to access

However, not everyone has access to the Fredericton course because there may not be reliable transportation. And the cost of gas can also be a barrier, especially for those traveling from out-of-town areas.

There is also a language barrier as classes are only offered in English at the moment and the default language of technology is often English. It can be corrected, but sometimes help is needed, Reid said.

Having mainstream technology in the smart home package is a “huge pro,” Calder said, because many seniors may already have friends and family who own these items.

“If that’s the case, they can be encouraged to just join that ecosystem.” And that automatically gives them a support network for that troubleshooting,” Calder said.

“It allows a little more independence and a little more sense of control over this technology.”

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