About the SeniorAdvisor.com 2014 In-Home Innovation Scholarship: We started the scholarship program to bring awareness of the unique benefits and challenges of in-home caregiving for seniors to younger generations. The questions posed by the scholarship encouraged our nation’s future caregivers to present solutions for improving home care in the United States. College-aged students were required to answer one of the three essay topics below and provide a short bio as part of their scholarship application. Read the winning essays here.

How can the healthcare industry use technology to improve in-home care for American seniors?

Essay response by Lauren Catlett

Imagine a home that, with the use of technology, becomes part of the healthcare team and social support network for the older adult. With sensors and alert systems, the home detects falls, shuts off appliances when not in use, and facilitates activities of daily living. With video communication, it connects patients and caregivers to physicians, nurses, and other health professionals. The home monitors vital signs, signals the development of illness or infection, and reports these findings to the healthcare team. It redefines the scope and efficacy of in-home care for American seniors by reducing hospitalizations and improving quality of life.

Such homes are already under development, although not widely in the United States. An article recently published by the BBC describes a study conducted in Norway by the healthcare company Abilia examining the merits of a “smart house.” Sensors connected to central touchscreen devices track occupant movements throughout the smart house, which is especially useful for high-fall-risk elders and persons with dementia. The house maintains a schedule of daily activities and offers reminders at critical intervals, such as timing for medications. Video capabilities at the touchscreen hub allow occupants to communicate verbally and visually with healthcare team members, a feature that promotes consistent wellness monitoring. In the United Kingdom and Italy, carpeting that detects falls and sensors that track home temperatures and air quality are under development. Integrated with the lifestyle of the occupant, these technologies would enable the home to act as a partner in the healthcare team, supporting aging in place and in-home care.

Current technologies used in home care complement emerging systems, such as the smart home, and foreshadow valuable advances in the future of elder care. Information and communication technology (ICT), including videoconferencing, text-messaging, and health monitoring systems, already reduce hospitalizations, increase the viability of home care, and promote individualized, person-centered care (Venter, et al., 2012 & DePalma, 2009). The smart home network described above has the potential to extend these existing technologies to facilitate communication and improve care coordination between seniors, families, caregivers, and healthcare providers. Future home-based technologies might include lavatories that detect urinary tract infections leading to earlier treatment; programmed and timed medication dispensers to reduce errors in dosage; and tele-support groups in which seniors can connect with one another in their own homes through videoconferencing to alleviate loneliness and isolation and promote empowerment. Air quality sensors might serve the dual purpose of tracking ventilation and temperature while surveying occupant movement throughout the home, alerting caregivers to patient mobility and adverse events in an unobtrusive way.

The “smart” home must work in tandem with other members of the healthcare team and with the needs, desires, and values of seniors and their families. A 2013 systematic review of telehealth technologies determined that “people living with chronic illnesses and healthcare professionals were positive to the use of ICT applications”; however, “the use of ICT cannot replace a face-to-face encounter but can be used as a complement” (Lindberg, et al., 2013, p. 6). Smart home technologies must be customized to the needs of individual seniors and will not supplant the need for in-home caregivers and human companionship. Further, these technologies must be designed to empower the older adult within the home, enabling him or her to perform tasks safely and easily, while not placing undue limits on movement or causing confusion or frustration. They must not be cost-prohibitive, and they must be integrated into the larger network of the healthcare team and the community while maintaining the privacy of patient information.

Within these parameters, we must navigate a complex journey to implement new technologies in a cost-effective, user-friendly, and person-centered way. By conceptualizing the home as a member of the senior’s healthcare team and social support network we can make a significant stride toward this goal. The home can serve the roles of health monitor and communications facilitator, addressing urgent challenges in elder care, such as poor care coordination, social isolation, fall and infection risk, and medication error. In partnership with patients, in-home caregivers, nurses, physicians, and others, the “smart home” shows great promise for improvements in safety and quality of life for seniors.


About Lauren

Lauren is currently pursuing a graduate degree in nursing at the University of Virginia.

Senior Advisor's knowledgeable writers blog about senior care services, trends and more.

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