It has often been said that technology is for the young – yet most baby boomers, especially the younger ones now entering their 60s, have used computers pretty much all of their adult lives, and surveys indicate that two-thirds or more of boomers use their smart phones about as often as their Gen X successors. But there’s one area in which digital technology may turn out to be much more than a convenience. As this recent Kiplinger article by reporter Jackie Stewart suggests, the same smart home technology that is spreading rapidly across America could bring huge added benefits to aging boomers, allowing them to age in place far longer and safer than ever before.
One Man’s Story: Greater Freedom, Sense of Security
Stewart begins with the example of Hank Norsworthy of Jacksonville, Florida. Norsworthy is 77 and has lived with multiple sclerosis for 40 years, using a walker with wheels to navigate his home and beyond. Difficulties abound for someone in his condition, including simple tasks like turning on the lights at night to make his movements less hazardous. Norsworthy watched his friends jump on the smart home technology bandwagon and decided to try it for himself, hoping to automate certain aspects of his home to make life easier.
He was hooked. The purchase of an Echo Dot, smart lightbulbs, and smart plugs mean he can now ask Alexa to turn his lights on instead of dealing with dark hallways and difficult nighttime conditions. Encouraged by this newfound sense of freedom, Norsworthy is considering more upgrades, including smart locks on his doors and better smart lighting in his garage. “This beats the little motion detector lights I was using before,” Norsworthy told Kiplinger.
Voice-Activated Smart Devices Make Sense for Seniors
Smart devices, especially with voice-activated home technology, have a very low barrier of entry for older adults, since they lack small keypads and overwhelming menus of buttons that some find difficult to manage. All the user has to do is talk.
This has had an unprecedented effect on the adoption of these technologies. Stewart points out that, according to AARP’s report, 2021 Tech Trends and the 50+, the percentage of adults over 50 who own smart devices for their homes almost doubled from 2019 to 2020, now at nearly one household in five.
The only real difficulty is selecting the brand and type of technology to purchase, as the choices expand every day. Choosing among the three biggest tech companies—Amazon, Google, and Apple—tends to be a lifelong choice, since each system really only works with devices from the same brand and won’t “talk” to other systems.
Tom Kamber, founder and executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (an affiliate of AARP), encourages older adults to do their research before committing to a particular system. The system’s features should work for them, not the other way around, and should be based on their unique needs. The way he puts it: “People need to make technology choices based on their use patterns.”
Deciding on a Smart Home Technology Brand
According to recent statistics, more than 200 million smart speakers are now in use in U.S. homes. That’s a staggering figure when you realize that these speakers mostly come from three main companies. Amazon, Google, and Apple each have their own “ecosystem” of smart home tech with a wide array of features and devices that can be connected to each. Amazon offers Alexa Smart Home with an Echo speaker, Google has Nest with a Nest Audio speaker, and Apple sells their HomeKit with the HomePod mini speaker.
These speakers allow you as the user to ask your program—called a virtual assistant—a question, or even give it a command by addressing it through what is called a “wake word”. Usually this involves speaking the assistant’s name out loud, such as “Alexa,” “Hey, Google,” or “Siri.” Once the assistant is “awakened,” the user can control various aspects of his or her home simply through the use of their voice.
Voice Control Replaces Shaky Hands, Fading Vision
The speakers connect to a vast number of devices including lights, locks, thermostats, doorbells, and more. Even though these devices can be controlled through a smartphone or remote control, the smart speaker system places the control of the home well within the reach of older adults simply through voice commands alone.
Richard Caro is the co-founder of Tech-enhanced Life, studying the intersection of aging and technology, and he encourages the use of smart home products as an alternative for seniors who find smart phone apps difficult to use. Shaky hands and failing vision can render smartphones next to useless for some older adults, but voice-based smart home technology can give them back a certain degree of independence in their homes.
Experts Suggest Staying with One Brand
Experts say that one of the big downsides of smart home technology is that people have to be comfortable with automation, which some seniors are not. Another big issue is that devices from one brand won’t work in another brand’s ecosystem – so, when you choose a device, you’re choosing a whole system. This means consumers should be very aware to check that a device is compatible with the system they have before they make a purchase.
Those who test today’s tech products say that the three big players in the industry all make fairly comparable systems, so the choice is really a matter of preference. Amazon is the leading brand at the present, with about 50 percent of smart speaker owners having an Amazon Echo and the rest split between Google and Apple products, according to eMarketer.
Before you choose a smart speaker system, consider the smartphone you already have. Android phones pair fairly seamlessly with any Google or Amazon product, while an iPhone will do better with Apple systems. Brand loyalty aside, compatibility should be at the top of the list of your considerations before purchase.
Smart Home Products Retirees Should Consider
While Google and Apple definitely have potential to help aging adults, Amazon has taken the specific issue of aging in place head-on with its Care Hub service. Nicolas Maynard, senior manager for Alexa for Everyone at Amazon, says that the free service is “designed to help aging customers maintain independence and provide assurance and peace of mind to their family members.” This includes features for caregivers, including the ability to check-in remotely and to receive an alert if the owner hasn’t used their Alexa by a given time.
Some features that are useful across all smart platforms are smart lighting – a real help for older adults to aid in preventing falls – along with smart plugs that can be used with almost any appliance, even your coffee maker. Video door bells can also be helpful, as they eliminate the need to open the door to speak with a stranger or visitor.
Experts recommend starting out with smart plugs, as they tend to be the least expensive of all the smart devices, and allow you to test the idea of voice-controlled appliances before you make a more significant purchase.
Technical Support for Smart Home Technology
Susan Corbett, director of the National Digital Equity Center, reminds us that anyone can learn new technology, no matter their age. While it can be intimidating, installation of new devices has become easier and easier as the technology has grown more mainstream. “If someone wants to learn,” says Corbett, “they can.”
That said, you can hire someone else to do the installation for you, if you prefer. But using these devices shouldn’t scare someone away from trying. There are plenty of programs offered through local libraries, organizations such as Senior Planet and GetSetUp, and so many more options for learning the ropes of a new device. Take the word of Hank Norsworthy, our very first example from this article. His advice to any older adults looking for more independence through automation? “Just go for it.”
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(originally reported at www.kiplinger.com)