One option was assisted living, but then Roberts heard of an alternative: new technology called the GrandCare System, which uses strategically placed home sensors to record motion in key spots such as the bathroom, entryway and bedroom. "She can live in her own space, and I don't worry," says Roberts, who can monitor motion via computer and notice if, say, her mother has wandered out the front door, possibly disoriented.
Such technology is just one example of the so-called "aging in place" movement driven by baby boomers who are growing older. Other emerging systems include floor sensors that can track footstep patterns and detect changes that warn of potential falls and more elaborate setups that integrate webcams and video conferencing systems with the Internet.
Scientists at universities and corporate research labs are also experimenting with the next wave of smart house gadgets that track whether medication is being taken, help with cooking and other routine tasks or act as surrogate sitters that can detect problems and call for help. The goal is to help seniors live safely at home and feel protected while still maintaining their autonomy. For adult children, the goal is peace of mind.
The aging in place movement is gathering momentum because of several ominous demographic trends. In 2011, the oldest boomers will turn 65, and over the next two decades, the ranks of the "oldest old" are expected to balloon exponentially. This advancing age wave will place an enormous burden on the U.S. healthcare system at a time when there's a growing shortage of doctors, nurses and caregivers. Assisted living and skilled nursing facilities can't be built fast enough to accommodate everyone -- and even if they could, the costs would be astronomical.
"Corporations and government policy makers realize that as the boomers age, the costs won't be sustainable if we continue to do business the way we're doing it right now," says Majd Alwan, director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies in Washington, D.C.
The way to bridge this gap is to create an entirely new paradigm of care, experts say, and make it possible for seniors to remain in familiar surroundings until the very end.
"There is an intrinsic value to the home, where the individual has a sense of accomplishment and a level of comfort that they will never replicate by moving," says Peter Bell, executive director of the National Aging in Place Council in Washington, D.C.
Technology is paving the way. We've already come a long way from the electronic pendants and bracelets with panic buttons the elderly can press in case of an emergency. Some of the products that recently hit the market allow families to keep an on eye on older loved ones from a distance, and others use elaborate networks of sensors to detect unusual activity. This technology, experts say, provides peace of mind for the elderly, whose biggest fear is of falling and being unable to get help.
Costs are reasonable, ranging from about $200 for a no-frills sensor network to about $2,000 for more elaborate setups. Because these products have come on the market within the last two years, their use isn't widespread. "But they should become more popular," says Alwan, "especially as the systems become more integrated."
When Olga Zaffos left her front door wide open, her daughter and son-in-law knew immediately. A video camera strategically positioned in the 87-year-old Oklahoma City woman's living room transmitted an image of the door to a dedicated computer in the couple's nearby home. And if Olga wants to see her loved ones, she doesn't need to be computer literate -- all she has to do is sit in front of the camera if she wants to chat.
Reminders to take her medication are flashed periodically on a computer screen that sits in her living room. If Olga's family wants to check in, or a message is displayed, a distinctive ring that is recognizable even to people suffering from severe dementia sounds.
When Olga's daughter and son-in-law, Deidre and Steve Downham, send photos of family outings, they're displayed on the monitor, which keeps her in touch with grandkids and other family members.
"I check on her several times a day just to make sure she's OK," Steve says.
The monitoring and video conferencing system, called AttentiveCare, is deceptively simple: A webcam is hooked up to a computer with a flat-panel TV monitor, and the data is sent via a broadband Internet connection.
AttentiveCare was originally devised by three brothers, using off-the-shelf equipment, after their mother, who lived hundreds of miles away from them, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. The family stepped up in-home care as her condition deteriorated, but because they could keep tabs on her round-the-clock electronically, she was able to live out her days at the family farm in rural Arkansas until she died of cancer at age 86 in 2004.
"I had coffee with her every morning and got her day started," says Ken Nixon, one of the brothers and chief executive of the Oklahoma City-based Caregiver Technologies Inc., which makes AttentiveCare. "It made such a difference in my life and in the life of my mom because it kept her engaged and made her feel valuable."
AT&T's Remote Monitor uses webcams to watch over the living room, kitchen or front door, and motion sensors to register when a door to a room opens. The system, which some use for home security, can even turn lights on and off in the house and check to see if someone left a coffee pot on the stove. If a senior wants some privacy, he or she can turn the cameras off.