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Tech to Track Your Aging Parents     Smart Money By CATEY HILL

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  • AmbitCare Senior Smart Watch
  • Mobile Personal Emergency Response System Product Review

    While less glamorous than Lady Gaga's 3-D glasses or the BlackBerry tablet, one of the hottest new gadgets on display at the Consumer Electronics Show last week was a white device the size of a bread machine that reminds grandma to take her meds. That 'smart pillbox' is just one of a growing number of tech tools designed to help caregivers keep tabs on their charges even when the caregiver is miles away.

    Now that people are living longer and hoping to stay in their homes for as long as possible, the market for home health-monitoring technologies is growing. Revenues for personal emergency response systems variations of the I've-fallen-and-I-can't-get-up emergency alert bracelets hit $963 million in 2010, after growing 10% to 15% each of the past three years, according to Zachary Bujnoch, a health technology analyst at research firm Frost & Sullivan. And the market for newer event-monitoring technologies, like those using cellular networks to transmit the ECG data, is growing at about 200% per year, he says. With a population that's increasingly comfortable with technology whether that's an aging parent who needs monitoring or her daughter who's doing the monitoring adoption of such products is only likely to grow. 'We're just in the first inning of a lot of caregiving tech,' says Andy Cohen, chief executive of, an online caregiver support site.

    Case in point: Earlier this week, General Electric (GE: 18.88, -0.42, -2.18%) and Intel (INTC: 28.09, -0.39, -1.37%) announced a new joint effort called 'Care Innovations,' which will develop tech products to help aging people live independently and to make it easier for caregivers to watch them from afar. When big players like that team up, it's a signal of how much potential is in this market, says Liz Boehm, a principal analyst for Forrester Research. Another sign: Traffic to's aging-in-place technology section has tripled in the past year, outpacing traffic to most other sections of the website.

    Despite the enthusiasm, technology might not always be the answer. Some of these technologies are still far from perfect, says Majd Alwan, vice president of the Center for Aging Services Technologies. Power outages or dead batteries can put a device out of commission, and the cellular network that sends those heart arrhythmia alerts could succumb to wireless outages critical problems with an already vulnerable population. An even trickier problem: These devices won't work if someone doesn't want to use them or doesn't know how.

    Nevertheless, as the sector grows, some gadgets are setting the pace. Here are three that garnered buzz at this year's CES.

    About 32 million Americans take three or more medications every day, according to the National Council on Patient Information and Education, and 'smart pillbox' devices are designed to make it easier to remember what to take, how much and when. One of them, TabSafe, is an electric-powered, mini chest of pill drawers with a battery backup that uses both visual and audible take-your-medicine alerts, dispenses the correct dose at scheduled intervals, and can also send a confirmation message via text to a designated caregiver when a dose has been dispensed. Meanwhile, the patient can use the device to keep a daily log of vital signs like blood pressure, blood sugar and oxygen, which the caregiver can access online.

    But that sort of technology doesn't come cheap. The device costs $1,099 (or $50 to $100 per month to rent). And it doesn't solve one key problem: If mom doesn't take her meds and you're not close enough to intervene right away, who steps in? Health care experts say TabSafe is best utilized if a caregiver or someone he contacts can respond fairly quickly if something goes amiss.

    For about $200 (plus monitoring fees of about $100 per month), you can buy any number of home monitoring devices that use sensors to alert caregivers if their charge has fallen or might need medical attention, according to But for an additional $349.99, you can upgrade to the Sonamba, which uses sound and motion sensors to monitor all movements, alerting caregivers with periodic text messages like 'all is well,' or 'attention needed.' The Sonamba, which looks like a digital picture frame, is placed somewhere in the house; smaller sensors are placed in other rooms so that the device can theoretically monitor most of a home. Something else experts like: It doesn't require technical expertise on the part of the patient.

    Although the $549.99 price and the $39 monthly fee are higher than those of many other devices on the market, the Sonamba does have additional bells and whistles like reminder messages about doctors' appointments and medication routines. Other extras might not be so useful like the electronic games for seniors that come standard or the fact that the device doubles as a digital picture frame.

    Lifecomm mPERS
    Falling is the most common cause of hospital admissions for trauma and the leading cause of injury and death among those ages 65 and older, the CDC reports. One big reason a fall can be so serious is that, for seniors living alone, it may be hours before anyone notices. Lifecomm's new mobile personal emergency response system (mPERS) uses cellular network signals to transmit messages to a caregiver in the event of a fall. Just slightly bigger than an iPod Nano, the wearable battery-powered belt clip, watch or necklace has as an embedded GPS (in case help is needed away from home) and a sensor that tracks the number of steps a person takes, along with their activity level. Veer from the norm and the device sends a caregiver alert. It also comes with online support tools where caregivers can sign up for things like low-battery alerts.

    The system works well as long as it's in range of a strong cell signal and there's still no getting around the fact that its owner must remember to wear it to get the high-tech benefits. The company says the device will be 'comparable' in price to other systems (Wellcore offers a similar product for $199 with a $49.99 monthly fee).

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