A Newly Uncertain Life

Crabby Old Lady and Home Monitors for Elders

These days, you can install indoor and outdoor cameras on your home to catch a burglar. You can reset your heating, air conditioning and turn on the lights as you're driving home so the house is comfortable when you get there.

If you've got the right digital kitchen equipment, you can remotely turn on the grill, oven or slow cooker with an app for your iPhone or Android so dinner is ready when you arrive.

Of course, there are dozens if not hundreds of wearable trackers to count your steps, measure your heart rate, fat, BMI, muscle mass and even pregnancy.

Just about every day a bunch of new gadgets come on the market and those above are only a handful of the most obvious in the new-ish category of “smart home” living.

The closest Crabby Old Lady has gotten to it in both personal interest and use is the Alexa – she owns three and you probably would not be wasting your money if you bet that sometime soon she will throw at least one of them against a wall.

They regularly misunderstand words, behave as if they are deaf unless Crabby shouts, don't have an answer for commonplace questions and – a new one Crabby hasn't been able to fix yet – play random music when she hasn't asked. If that grill controller is as iffy as Alexa, Crabby hopes it comes with an automatic fire extinguisher.

Her skepticism notwithstanding...

The biggest demographic market for smart devices may be elders. There are the ubiquitous home alert necklaces that can and do save lives – just ask TGB reader Darlene Costner. And Crabby has come to believe that electronic pill monitors could be useful especially for those, like her, who need a chart to track when a dose is due.

For Crabby, however, it gets trickier when talk turns to sensors that monitor an elder's activity and send the information to distant caregivers or family members.

Marketed as a way to help elders live independently at home for as long as possible, hardly anyone has spent much effort yet to find out how the spied-upon old people feel about inanimate objects acting as nannies and tattling to their human controllers.

When you look into these gadgets, one of the first things notice is that elders themselves are left out of the conversation as though they are already too senile to evaluate the service themselves which, obviously, begs the question about why, in that case, anyone would leave them home alone - sensors or no sensors.

Here are a couple of examples of how marketing language is typically aimed toward the children or caregivers and not elders themselves:

'Looking after an elderly relative who lives alone can be a huge source of worry. But what if your smartphone could automatically alert you if your mother has stayed in bed all morning or suffered a fall?

“If a senior does not get up in the morning and turn on the coffee machine as usual, the system detects the lack of activity and the person's carer is warned by text message.”

Oh yeah? What if Crabby just wants to sleep in this morning? Are you really going to wake her for breaking YOUR rule about her morning routine so you can congratulate yourself about your caregiving chops?

There's more. A newly-developed sensor uses radio waves to map where people are in a room. Another company is working on a sensor that warns when a senior is at risk of falling by detecting sudden changes in their walking speed or gait.

Does that second one make any sense at all? Maybe she's just dancing a little jig because it's a beautiful day. And if she's about to fall, Crabby doubts anyone will get there in time to save her from it. Plus, does anyone think the police or EMTs have time to show up at someone's home on a maybe?

Are these helpful things or intrusions, do you think? Lifesavers or invasions of privacy? And why don't sellers target elders themselves about this stuff? Here is one point of view in a short, humorous film about an 70-year-old widow, Thomas, whose adult children have loaded his home with smart gadgets to organize his day.

The film, Uninvited Guests, was developed about three years ago by an organization called Superflux. It stars actor James Leahy:

(Thank Chuck Nyren, proprietor of the blog Advertising to Baby Boomers, for sending this video which prompted today's post. You can find his thoughts on wearable tech gadgets here and you can read more about the film and its genesis at the Superflux website.)

Do any of you, dear readers, live with such monitors and reminders? If not, would you consider it – for yourselves or, perhaps, for you own ageing parents? Here is what Superflux says about the issues raised in their film:

”The brightly coloured 'smart objects' in the film are...symbolic ‘ghosts of the future’, where with time, their physical presence fades into the fabric of our environment, and all that is left is their invisible halo constantly monitoring, logging, tracking and processing ambient feedback.

“Ultimately it is our intention that this, at times comedic story, plays on and gives form to some of the growing tensions between human and machine agency. And in doing so, provoke questions about how we want to live and grow old in an increasingly technologically mediated word.”

Crabby Old Lady sees value in some of these new electronic helpers and in particular, she is looking forward to virtual doctor visits via her computer one day.

But she is skeptical about the privacy issues and about the control of elders' daily lives and schedules by people – loved ones or otherwise - who believe they know better. Like it or not, however, it is only going to become more widespread and commonplace.

What do you think?


Sounds like Brave New World to me.

Well, I must admit my complicity in this topic! We tried the medic alert pendant, then the bracelet, for my now-97 year old mother. The damn thing kept going off for no reason, resulting in multiple trips to her house to call in and say she was fine. After sending back the 3rd or 4th device, we gave up on it. Next step was to set up a video cam on her entertainment center. Now we have a good panoramic view of where she spends much/most of her time. At any time I can check on her "Nest" and see if she is in her chair reading, in her chair sleeping, eating, etc. Granted, if she were in her bedroom or bath I would not see her. However, if she were not to appear in her living area for 12 hours, I know to definitely check on her. She initially complained that she couldn't bring her boyfriend in (joking--she has none!), but has recently admitted that she does like the idea of my being able to keep an eye on her. And, I can give the password to my brother who can also check on her. It works for us though it is an invasion of privacy, and she is OK with it.

As one gets older the platform that balances safety vs privacy becomes thinner and thinner.
How does one "check on somebody" without making it look like they are spying?
The extent and scope of any surveillance system should always be controlled by the one who is being watched.

I'm with Crabby on this one. Kids I haven't seen in years futzing around over what to do with Dad? They should go home. If I want help I'll ask for it.

I've tried to work with Siri on my iPhone, and she just doesn't like me. When I get a new phone I hand off the old iPhone to hubby and he and Siri get along just fine. She never says to him, "I don't understand," or "That is not possible." So, I have no plans to get an Alexa or any other device that I must talk to. My voice and my accent are not compatible.

Ack! I'm not up for this at all. If they want to be helpful they can come over and vacuum.

When I was still working, my husband had a medical alert button around his neck. He had Parkinson's, LBD (that we were not aware of at the time) and gait disorder. He used a walker and would frequently freeze in place. Overall we had good luck with the alert button. They only forgot once that he had hit the button when he fell. Fortunately I was home. Once he called them when he froze in the middle of the living room and said, Help, I am standing up and can't sit down!!! He was afraid that he would fall. They always came in force - Sheriff, Fire Department, Paramedics with ambulance...I came home more than once to my road being blocked by emergency equipment. At the same time that they alert 911 they also alert neighbors so it is quite a gang that shows up. Sometimes he forgot he had the button...that was around the time I quit work.....the price for this system was $39/month. My mother at 90 had the alert button and insisted on keeping it on top of the refrigerator........

I am personally kamikaze and would prefer to just lie on the floor and slowly die (My attitude is I gave birth to seven children, I can give death once...it can't take much longer than the 3 day labor with the last one!!!) than have my life invaded by all of these devices....easy to say now, but it is not easy to be treated as if you don't know what to do from one minute to the next. Two of my 7 children would drive me crazy with their obsessive concern...better they don't know what I am up to......

Thanks for this post and giving me an opportunity to rant, Ronni!!

Love that video.particularly part with cane
Got to keep strong as it takes forever to heal after falling...

We are just now listening to the book The Longevity Economy and how all us “olders” are viewed as disabled in some way and all products are geared toward this instead of our enjoyment of life. You said it - we are not in the conversation of what products we want. Very illuminating study of how ageism shows up in the products on the market.

No easy answers here. I have friends a few years younger than I--I'm in my mid-70s--with parents a few years older. I listen to the worries of one and the fears of the other. My son lives three hours away, and though we don't see each other often, we talk on the phone frequently. I say that I hope I drop dead in public, but it is only semi jokingly. I am no longer able to drive at night; what's the next thing to go? A few years ago there was a movie about the relationship between a man suffering from dementia, his children, and his robot care taker, "Robot and Frank." That may not be as far fetched as it sounds.
Ronni, thank you for the time and effort you put into this very timely and smart blog.

That bit about hiring out the 'walkies' to the kid for a soda pop was worth the price of admission. Thanks, Ronni. The rest of it was a story that I simply could not relate to.

For some, perhaps, it is a life-line and an important aid in staying safe.

For me, a phone call at around 6:00pm each day to an equally aged friend is all the safety net we both need. We exchange the news of our days and not-so-incidentally check up on our mutual well being.

This is a big no thanks for me. Sounds like a conspiracy theory I know, but after working in IT and reading available data I'm not going to be complicit in feeding my interests, actions, choices, life back to that big marketer in Wall Street. Nor am I interested in feeding info on my every movement back to a health monitor tech (can guarantee you info doesn't go to health professional until a tech determines if it needs to). I'm reserving my right to die peacefully, in my home, on my own thank you very much.

I was given a Google Home Mini for Christmas and as soon as I realized I could call my son with just a verbal request, I ordered a second one for the bedroom. Now, almost anywhere in the house, I can call him for help if I fall or whatever. It won't work with 9-1-1, but at least I can summon help. No monthly subscription, no third party monitoring. And I can use the devices to play music, get news and weather, etc. Hope eventually to get a thermostat they can control. We continue to look for the ideal monitoring system, with an eye to future needs, but this is a step in the right direction. In addition, my family can always see my location via my phone's GPS, my son calls most days, and the Xbox shows him when I'm in the living room and online.

I recently had knee surgery (not the big knee replacement). As I was leaving the surgery center I learned I was supposed to have someone stay with me for 24 hours. No advance warning, for starters. But really, I didn't think it was necessary since I live in a retirement community and there are people all around. I did promise, however, to get the emergency call button I had resisted wearing in the past. I got it and kept it around my neck or near the bed for 24 hours.

Several people have worn those buttons non-stop but were so shocked by their fall (or whatever) that they forgot to push the button. Others told me the call button saved their lives.

Remember the books "This Perfect Day" and "1984"? And I'll throw "Future Shock".

The Party (whoever they are) are now watching us; always listening in. Using technology to snoop into our privacy. There was a recent divorce case wherein one party wanted the home's listening devices to be accessed and used to retrieve past husband and wife conversations. This implies these devices may actually have a memory.

It was our generation that imagined it and then created it. Now we get to live in it.

Welcome to the "The Brave New World" folks.

I am part of the problem. I used to be a programmer. I spent my career in the computer industry. A major part of the problem is letting a programmer define, design, and implement a solution. A programmer gave you Google and Facebook. A programmer gave you the current internet implementation. A programmer thought the cane and fork in the video was a good idea.

The reasons that programmers program is because they relate to the machine better than they do people. And they program accordingly. They have no clue how people really work. I like my Alexa but I don’t ask hard things of her because a programmer set her up. And I will never use an automated senior system unless I can do the programming/set up. The whippersnappers have no idea what it is like to be me.

Oh boy, two days of long distance driving have left me tired and curmudgeonly. I’m going to ask Alexa to turn off everything electrical in the house and go take a nap.

It's a plot to get rid of all the old folks by scaring them to death!
Personally, I'd rather be dead.

Well, I often wonder what will happen to me -- I've no one close to check on me.
But everytime I think of the alternative, I just come to the same conclusion -- I'd rather be alone and I'm going to die anyway, so I guess I'll do it my way.

Dear Ronni, in many ways, I've never entered the 21st century. So all these electronic gadgets seem mysterious to me. I did have a medical alert for a few weeks and had several horrible experiences with it. One of those was coming home to discover my door had been burst open by the police because the alert--which I had canceled four weeks before had never been deactivated by the company.

So I had to get a new door and jamb and hire someone to install it for me. The medical alert company did pay for that because I got really assertive with their rep. But never again will I use one of those.


I love my independence, and so far (I am 69) I have had no difficulty maintaining that independence. I do not have children and few relatives/friends who are nearby. I still drive (I was even a Test Driver a couple of years ago) and take care of myself easily.

However, I don't know what I would do should I become incapacitated in some way in the future. I just don't like anyone butting into my life! Though I love technology, just the intrusion of social media into our lives is too much for me. For me, the ideal would be to go to sleep one night and not wake up. That is not the rule though.

Bottom line: I would be resistant to having any device/system watching and reporting on me.

I really got a kick out of the video. I could relate to his outfoxing the machines. He just wants to live his life his way. I do like the idea of an alert button if a person falls, but the rest is just too much.

What do I think? I absolutely love anything electronic that makes my life easier and keeps me independent..

I have ARMD (age related macullar degeneration) and so did my Mother. I'm still in an Intermediate stage where magnification helps, but I can't drive. Mom had TV, sitting very close for a while, but screens were small, so that didn't last. She had books on tape from the State Library and she eventually had me and my brother to read to her, do crossword puzzles and take care of her in our homes. No privacy there at all.

I have a smart phone which tells me the time of day, keeps me company with radio (NPR and wonderful podcasts), has a magnifier app so I can read menus etc., has accessibility features that magnify the screen and talk to me and allow me to speak text and email messages, etc. I use binoculars to watch big screen TV from across the room, as well as take them to plays with friends for a better view that they have. As the loss of central vision progresses, I'll use apps to read various screens to me as I see my blind friends do.

Alas, autonomous vehicles are too far down the road for me, but I can summon a ride with a phone app. I'm eager to discover how the next electronic gizmo can help me stay independent. Having to live with family or assisted living is the ultimate lack of privacy.

My father is 96, drives to the office, church, and takes a walk every day. He is very engaged with people in the small town where he lives. A few years ago, he asked for a device he could carry in his pocket. We use GreatCall, which has an app that tells me where he is throughout the day...at church, work, or my favorite "out and about".
Because I’m here in Oregon and he’s in the Midwest, it brings me some peace of mind. Along with frequent phone calls.

I think that if an old person lives alone and either wants to keep doing that or has no viable alternative, then unless governments allocate a lot more money to elder care some of these gadgets are going to become necessary. Personally, I would loathe them - except perhaps for an emergency call button.

My partner and I decided that it was important to plan ahead so that neither of us has to face being in the position of the guy in the video - especially since all our kids live the other side of the Atlantic and cannot come dashing round in a hurry.

Our solution has been to gather together a group of like-minded elders and work together to set up our own elders cohousing community so that we can all 'age in place' together and not only help each other when needed but combine our resources to employ a live-in careworker who will provide a further level of care for whoever among us eventually needs it. It is a model that has been highly successful in Denmark and is fast catching on elsewhere.

Much as I enjoy technology, I feel that creative, human-based solutions to elder isolation are preferable to tech-based ones wherever possible.

“'If a senior does not get up in the morning and turn on the coffee machine as usual, the system detects the lack of activity and the person's carer is warned by text message.'

"Oh yeah? What if Crabby just wants to sleep in this morning? Are you really going to wake her for breaking YOUR rule about her morning routine so you can congratulate yourself about your caregiving chops?"

Classic, classic Crabby!

I've always loved technology and the latest gadgets but when I no longer have complete control of the gadget, it is useless to me.

Perhaps these things are good for some people but for me they would be a complete invasion of privacy. Reminds me of Foucault and the watching of the other in "Birth of the Prison.".

All those "tell all" gadgets - what a nightmare! The smartphone is enough.

Oh, Crabby, all your posts this week have hit me where I live. I just got a call from my son this morning, which call I neglected to check until just a little while ago, wanting me to call or text him to let him know I'm still alive. He'd called last night when I was out, and I'd again neglected to check. Truth is, I'm grateful my kids check from time to time, though we don't talk every day. I'm about to turn 78 and am in good health, but feel "the shadow" hovering, mostly in terms of disability. Don't yet have a button or anything else, and the last thing I want is a monitor watching my movements. We have a Village movement in my neighborhood but so far I am not very active member--mostly because activities conflict with my own schedule. Still, I'm very glad they are there.

Re Siri--I am not making this up. I was at my desk, and I swore at something. Siri said--spontaneously--That's not very nice!

There may come a time when I have no choice about how/where I live, although I sincerely hope that doesn't happen. I'm with Marcia and several others on this issue. Actually, I'd rather connect with a large truck doing 50 MPH than be under someone else's constant surveillance (and control)! I'm a big fan of privacy and despise Big Brother. My response to having spy devices reporting every move "for my own good" is: RESIST. (I've had a RESIST button pinned to my jacket ever since The Orange Apparition was installed--note that I did not say "elected"--and it applies in this situation as well.)

We have few smart devices in our home. My husband is more tech-inclined than I am, but neither of us is interested in surrendering what little remains of our privacy and personal data to a monitoring company, which would then likely sell it to an unlimited number of marketers to "the elderly". Although I'm on Facebook, I've never been a regular user. I always questioned what happened to the information I shared and where it went--now I'm glad I did!

So glad my husband and I never joined Facebook even though his daughter and friends have invited us, and his sister kept insisting that was how she communicated family news. Haven't heard what they now think of it. I hate that my computer and cell phone track where I've been and the sites I access. I turn the sound off on the GPS, when husband drives, and I read the map to let him know where to go. I download the directions and read them the old fashioned way when I drive myself to a new place.

I am 78, and partner is 77 and we are both in good health but that doesn't last forever. After he had a cardiac arrest and quad heart bypass surgery 4 1/2 years ago I now know that things can change in an instant. He recovered quite nicely. But his cardiologist wanted him to get a "loop recorder" implant in his chest last year. It comes with a computerized device next to the bed so it downloads his status during the night . After the technician noted a 4 second pause in his breathing he had to take a sleep Apnea test...results normal...the doc recommends a pacemaker now but he is holding off on that. I think that would be a good idea but he is resisting.

No thank you to a wrist device to track how many steps I take either. I walk 3 or 4 days a week, and attend yoga 2 x a week. My children are great about not hovering; they are too busy with their (mostly grown) children, and careers. If anything my husband and I are the ones who are the good examples of eating healthy ( we are vegans) and exercising.

I love the video of the old guy outsmarting the "smart" devices plus it helps him to stay alert and use his brain instead of giving up.

I am happy to have any technology that keeps me living independently for as long as I can. I am not there yet but have observed others who fall and because alone, their injuries are worse than if they had someone " on call " and then, it's the slippery slope leading to assisted living arrangements which are fine if needed; but to be put off as long as is possible. I am happy to sacrifice a bit of so-called independence to make sure I am safe and upright. Life is more important to me. As to Alexa, I love her. She brightens my day. I feel an urge for a certain singer and bingo, my room is filled with the voice of my favorite. Who could ask for more? My two cents worth is that I embrace technology the good, the bad and the annoying.

NO WAY!!!!! What a waste of time and the human spirit! Give my mind and spirit room to breathe and move and think! Now the gas pumps have a video and blaring talk or music.......is the human race trying to wipe out all self chosen interior time???? I'm glad you talked about Alexa, as I had thought that might be good for asking questions, but now, no thanks! Another annoyance is what it sounds like.
And, good Lord, if I want to swear, I don't need Siri or Alexa or anybody else telling me it's not nice! And then...........while you or I are hearing Siri and Alexa......who is hearing us??? I think Big Brother has seeped right into our lives.
And that poor old man......I was happy he outfoxed his carer, but with a good bit of effort.

Here's another vote for the snarky film Robot & Frank.

Had a good laugh with the video! So far, I have not availed myself of any of these monitoring, prompting, tech items. My cell phone, alarm clock, kitchen-type timers have sufficed to fill my needs. When my husband died my children suggested providing me with a wearable alarm for falls/emergencies. I thanked them but declined, explaining my rationale, awareness of risks and describing my philosophy toward life (which we’ve discussed before), but expanding, based on my situation now.

Currently I do not desire being monitored which partly accounts for why I choose (so far) to “live in place” in my home rather than avail myself of the increased security of living in a retirement community. Having provided services in some fine facilities and settings, I am very aware of their benefits, but also aspects of control I would have to relinquish (which many people don’t realize occurs when they enter) which I’m not ready to trade away. When I become really sick (fortunately seldom) it can be scary and the question arises, should I call 911 or “ride this out”. As I told my children, there’s always the possibility I might become unable to make that call, but life is and always has been full of risks, so that’s the chance we take with some of our choices.

Another factor of concern to me on some of those devices is their hackability, my lack of trust that adequate care is made to ensure their security from external sources. Digital world techies are rushing so to monetize (in some cases for obscene profits) their corporations, products, etc., we’re increasingly seeing revealed that care is not taken to design items for the privacy and security of the consumer — also those businesses adopting them don’t take sufficient security measures either. Social media are special offenders.

There may well be some devices I might determine to be helpful to me and for the reassurance of my welfare for my children (who live across country) in the future, but I think not the items that poor man had to cope with in the video. Hoo Ha!!! We’ll discuss my use of any possible devices if and when any of us wants to do so, as they won’t impose them on me.

If my mind starts to go, then all bets are off, on where I’ll need to be and my children are to proceed in my best interests as well as they can given whatever their family situations at the time. I’ve had my life. They deserve theirs.

What an excellent post and wonderful comments.

I live in Seattle with my husband, so I don' t need constant reminders to do the things I need to do every day. For example, I don't need electronic pill monitors. I use the cheap plastic seven-day AM-PM pill holders which I ordered from Amazon.

I do use a pedometer to count steps when I go out for a walk (when it's not raining in Seattle). I also carry my cell-phone to contact my husband (if necessary) and binoculars for bird-watching on the trail to a local beach and beyond. I don't go for a walk when it's raining or looks as if it could start any minute.

I drive myself to the supermarket or the occasional doctor's appointment.

I have no adult children nearby to hover and worry about me, except a grown daughter on the east coast. That works out well.

One thing that is a big help is to have an alarm system which goes off if someone tries to break into our house. It's essential for security at any age when my husband or I leave the house or return or when we go to bed at night.

My mother in law refused to wear her medical alert device. She kept it on her bed stand. One night she apparently knocked it in her sleep and woke, still safely in bed, to paramedics looming over her. Could’ve given her a heart attack! We still don’t quite understand how they manage to get into her senior condo complex.

As baby boomers, we do have a foot in the tech world. But we want to limit its usage to things that keep us comfortably in our home. Our son is free to call us daily if he wishes to monitor us as we age.

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