Technology, automation, and aging in place – Houston Chronicle
John and Pat Gandy hadn’t lived in their new home in River Plantation long when they decided late one night to go skinny dipping in the therapeutic pool in their backyard.
It was a hot night, so the couple — he’s 82 and she’s 81 — undressed and headed for the pool, leaving clothes, towels and their smartphones indoors. Around 2 a.m., they decided to head back inside, only to discover that the automated doors they thought they had unlocked were, in fact, locked.
After a short panic — and an animated discussion about which of them would run around the yard looking for an open door — they found a garage door still open and got back inside. The couple vowed they would learn how to use the technology in their fully automated home.
Studies have shown that older people are less confident about using technology throughout their day, even though smartphones, laptops and home automation can make their lives safer and easier.
The Gandys, married 62 years, built their new 1-story, 3,400-square-foot Montgomery County home — they moved in six months ago — intending to create a place where they could gracefully age in place. Their previous home nearby was large enough, but everything about it was frustrating.
“We have lived in River Plantation for nearly 50 years and loved it here, but our home didn’t lend itself to being older,” said John Gandy, who owned specialty engineering and pipe distribution companies here and in Canada. “We had stairs, so we moved into a downstairs bedroom, but it had a tiny little shower that didn’t have room for handrails and there were no tall toilets anywhere.”
They weren’t interested in a retirement community, so they built a new home in consultation with their 59-year-old daughter, Jaycie Paris, who will inherit it. She may not need handrails right now, but aging in place is on her mind, too, Pat Gandy said.
John Gandy gets out his iPhone and points to the three apps that control virtually everything in his home: Nexia for heating and cooling, iAquaLink for their backyard pool and Savant for everything else.
“I wanted to do it, so I plowed into it. We’ve had Echo come out several times when it wasn’t working right, but it was operator error every time,” he said, referring to the Echo Workshop home automation company that installed and customized their home’s system. “We’re still learning, but we’re pretty good at it today.”
Pamela Cortes, director of marketing at Echo Workshop, said that home technology is easier than ever to use. While most of their clients are in their 30s, 40s and 50s, an increasing number are 65 and older.
She said older clients start with simple things such as using a smartphone or tablet to turn on lights or operate automated window shades, adding more applications as they gain confidence. One safety feature involves programming lights to come on in groups. Instead of fumbling around in the dark, you can have a series of lights come on to move from mud room to a hallway or kitchen more safely — avoiding potential injuries from falls — when you’re carrying in groceries.
Motion sensor lights can come on if you need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. If arthritis is a problem, you can unlock a door with a single touch instead of fumbling around with keys.
“It’s about continuous learning, and that’s happening with the Gandys,” Cortes said. “He’s figuring out these apps and he’s liking it. So he says, ‘Now I want to do this,’ and we’ll go out there and program something else for him to do. Once they get over that fear factor and get curious, they realize they can do it.”
As the products we use all day become increasingly tied to technology and the ability to control them from smart devices, older Americans who might benefit the most are largely being left behind.
A recent University of California San Diego study showed that people 65 and older might subscribe to a streaming service such as Netflix but don’t use it because they don’t understand how it works. Or they buy a printer and abandon installation because they don’t know what an IP address is and they’re embarrassed to ask for help.
Backing it up, the Pew Research Center reports that 73 percent of people age 65 and older use the internet and 53 percent own smartphones. They spend about four hours a day using a TV, computer or other electronic device. Even for people 80 and older — for both men and women and across education levels — screen time has increased.
They Gandys said they used their smartphones for calls, texts, emails and taking pictures but had their work cut out for them once they moved into their new home.
“I don’t turn any lights off until I get in bed and that’s the last thing I do. If Pat falls asleep with her light on, I can turn it off with my phone without getting up,” John said. “In the morning I can sit in the sun room and turn the heat up to a toasty 75 degrees so the bathroom will be warm when I’m ready for a shower. I am on my phone six to eight hours a day, can you believe that?”
Pat is proficient with the TV and window shades, and is catching up on other things. “We would never have thought that we can do all of this,” she said.
The Gandys used computers at work, so using smartphones and tablets at home isn’t completely foreign to them. More importantly, they realized that aging in place was about more than extra-wide doorways, handrails in the shower or the height of their toilets.
With automation, the Gandys can turn on their TV, adjust the volume and change the channel from their phone. They can turn lights on and off and adjust the temperature in any room. Security cameras help them monitor what’s going on outside, and a DoorBird doorbell helps them see who’s on their front porch. They own a ranch outside San Antonio, and they can check on it from their phones, too.
All of that feels like improved personal safety and peace of mind to the Gandys. The lighting technology alone makes them feel confident about walking around their home at any hour. They joke that toe kick lights set at 18 percent in the master bathroom create a runway for them to find their way to the toilet late at night — with an assist from handrail bars on the walls entering and inside the bathroom.
Those get bonus points from the Gandys, since worries about falling are a fear among older people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 million older people each year are treated in emergency rooms for fall injuries and some 300,000 older people are hospitalized for hip fractures.
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