The Gadgets and Services to Help Aging Loved Ones Live More Independently

It used to be that trying to help your parents safely age in place (the term for staying in their own home as they get older) was stressful. Now technology can make this life stage easier for you and them.

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Realizing My Father Is Aging

Coming of Age

Photo by Peter Ardito

Photo by Peter Ardito

The face staring back at me was both familiar and strange. I was on a video call with my father, and it felt like I was looking at a caricature of my future self: the nose and ears exaggerated beneath a cloud of snow-white hair.
“Can you see me OK?” he said. “Is this thing working?”

For many of us, video calls using apps like Skype and FaceTime are old hat. But for my father, it was a brave new world. This is a man whose fingers had never touched a computer keyboard or a smartphone. And frankly, at age 93, he had no desire to start. 

Then I sent him the grandPad, a simplified tablet designed for seniors who have yet to embrace the digital age. Within a day, my father had taken his first selfie. Within two, he had become addicted to FreeCell, a computer game, and had more or less gamely waded into the World Wide Web, though he confided to me that he didn’t much trust it. 

Using the grandPad’s camera, he gave me a virtual tour of the Florida condo he shares with his second wife. I did the same with my house. Then I introduced him to my son Cole, age 21. We talked about whether he looked like a less jowly, more handsome version of me. 

For 28 years, my father and I didn’t speak. (That’s a story for another time.) So he had never met my son, daughter or ex-wife. But now I touch base with my dad every few days via the grandPad. And we’re hardly the only ones using technology to bridge the span of years and miles. 

By 2030, one out of five Americans will be 65 or older. As has been widely reported, this cohort will place an enormous burden on our health care and retirement systems. It will also likely put an equally large logistical and mental strain on the generation charged with taking care of them.

The good news: Tech can help. There are devices that monitor elder health 24/7 and alert you when there’s a problem. And apps that make sure someone’s always available to drive dad to the doctor. And even senior-friendly interactive robots. Yes, they’re a thing now.

Everything is already on the market, with the goal of helping our parents live fuller, more independent lives—and better yet, to give us at least some relief from worry. 

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First: The Useful Gadgets

coming of age

Photo by Peter Ardito

Photo by Peter Ardito

Tech products specifically geared to seniors are usually modified for eyes that aren’t as sharp or hands that aren’t as steady as they used to be. They can give you and your parents greater peace of mind. 

Items listed clockwise from top, beginning with the tablet.

Tech created specifically for seniors is often either too confusing or too limited, but the grandPad gets it right. This 8-inch tablet features large, clearly labeled icons for video and voice calls, photos, email, music, games, news, weather and search. Only people on the approved contacts list can send messages—meaning no worries about strangers or scammers bothering your folks. Best of all, there’s a live support person on call 24/7 in English, Spanish and Chinese to help them troubleshoot (so you don’t have to try). 

COST After a 30-day free trial, from $49 a month, which includes the tablet and a 4G wireless connection.

Unaliwear Kanega Watch 
It’s entirely voice-driven: no tiny screen to squint at or pin-sized buttons to press. The Kanega can remind seniors to take their medications, guide them back home if they become lost on a walk and contact emergency services if they fall. Unlike most smartwatches from companies like Apple and Samsung, the Kanega doesn’t require a smartphone. 

COST $50 activation fee, then $60 a month for watch, cellular plan and 24/7 medical monitoring.

GreatCall Jitterbug Smart
This smartphone differs from your average Android handset in a few senior-friendly ways. The home screen is simpler, with large fonts and icons that make it easier to call, text, take pictures and play games. Optional health and safety services turn the phone into a lifeline. The 5Star app lets seniors tap a single button to talk to a highly trained live operator, who can determine if they need emergency assistance. Urgent Care connects them to medical pros 24/7, and MedCoach reminds them to take their medications. 

COST Handset, around $150. Voice and data plans, $15 to $50 a month; health/safety options, $20 to $35 more monthly.

GreatCall Lively Mobile 
If you want one-button access to GreatCall health and safety services without a smartphone, this 2 x 1.5-inch gadget is the ticket. Designed to be worn on a lanyard around the neck or clipped to a belt, the Lively Mobile features a single button that instantly connects to a highly trained live operator. The built-in accelerometer measures motion so it can detect if its wearer falls and call an operator automatically; an internal GPS provides the location in case emergency responders need to be summoned. 

COST $50 for the unit, plus $20 to $35 a month for services.

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Second: The Helpful Services

coming of age

Photo by Peter Ardito

Photo by Peter Ardito

Coordinating care for an aging parent no longer requires physical proximity. Apps, sites and services can help you find caretakers, arrange rides, even take over tech support duty. 

Sometimes what mom or dad really needs is a good roommate. Silvernest matches seniors who have extra rooms with people looking to fill them. You can request full background and criminal checks before finalizing any agreement. 

COST Homeowners pay $30 for a 90-day membership. (Posting is free for renters.)

If you’re not local (or available) enough to shop for mom or chauffeur her to the hairdresser, you can hire a personal “envoy.” Envoy employs highly vetted human helpers—according to the company, less than 5% of those who apply make the cut. You can book the same person each time or choose from a local roster whenever you need someone. Envoy is available in 22 cities across eight states, mostly in the West and Southeast. 

COST In addition to the $19 monthly fee, Envoy charges $25 an hour for rides or light housework and $12 plus 10% of the grocery bill for shopping excursions. 

The site matches elders with caregivers who live in their area. Start by filling out a questionnaire listing the kind of care they’ll need and how often, then select from a list of candidates. You can hire directly through the site or speak with a CareLinx representative to make your choice and arrange payment. Available nationwide.

COST Fees for caregivers typically range from $11 to $25 an hour.

You’ve got an important work meeting, your sister has to pick up her kids from school and Lord knows what your brother-in-law is up to—but somebody has to get dad to the doc. The Carely app makes it easier to coordinate schedules so you don’t have to stress as much. 

COST Free for Android and iOs devices

GoGo Grandparent
GoGo offers a toll-free number that lets seniors hail an Uber or Lyft without the app—they just dial and follow the voice prompts to tell the car where to pick them up. GoGo will send you text updates about ride requests, pickups and arrivals. Available wherever Uber or Lyft is accessible.

COST The service adds 19 cents per minute to the base price of the ride.

All good things must end, including life. Everplans creates a secure and shareable digital document archive as well as the means to organize it before the bell tolls. The site even helps compose a just-in-case letter for your survivors with info about bank accounts, insurance, passwords and so on. 

COST $75 a year, after a 30-day free trial.

Oscar Senior
Anyone who’s ever been pressed into providing tech support for their befuddled parents (been there, done that) will appreciate this app, which lets you access their tablet remotely and manage their apps and contacts. 

COST $5 a month or $50 a year; Android and iOS devices

Robo Roommates
When Maxine Duncan, 87, and Bert Yarbrough, 90, moved into The Heritage Downtown retirement community in Walnut Creek, CA, they never dreamed they’d have a robot for a roommate. Nicknamed Jimmy by the couple, the Ohmni (made by Silicon Valley startup OhmniLabs) consists of a camera running a custom Android operating system attached to a pole atop a three-wheeled base that can be controlled remotely over the Internet. When one of Bert and Maxine’s five grown children wants to reach them, they connect to Jimmy via the Internet and steer it around the apartment until the robot finds their mom or dad. “It’s been a fun experience,” says Maxine. Though it’s only been used in a handful of retirement communities so far, the $1,499 robot began shipping last year, according to company founder Thuc Vu. For far less money, Hasbro’s Joy for All robotic cat and dog ($100 to $120) provide welcome companionship with no feeding, walking or cleaning up after required.