Technology and other aids to help people "age in place"

Most people who have a choice prefer to remain in their own homes as they age and require more care.

No one wants to give up autonomy. Nursing facilities are expensive. Remaining in one's home as long as possible can be strategy for preserving one's estate.

Sometimes people with chronic and age-related disabilities become socially isolated when they choose to live independently. When it requires a lot of effort to get out, a person's friendships can shrink to the number of paid professionals who come in to give assistance.

A person's social needs may be better met in a nursing facility or retirement home, which can be akin to living in a college dorm.

But there are an ever growing number of devices -- some inexpensive, some expensive – which can help a person compensate for a loss of vision, hearing, mobility and fine motor skills.

Keys to whether these devices will allow a person to "age in place" often hinges on their mental acuity and willingness to learn new things -- or the acuity of a spouse or loved one sharing the home.

Safety and security

The newest fall detection devices do not require a button to be pushed for help to be summoned. This is an important feature for people with dementia or other cognitive difficulties who may not remember how to operate the technology.

A device called "Be Close" tracks a person's activities throughout the day, producing hard data a loved one or caregiver can monitor to see how many hours the individual is sleeping and whether they are being active enough to maintain good health.

Dementia patients with an inclination to wander can wear an ankle bracelet that electronically transmits their location -- a godsend if they were to become lost.

Environmental Accessibility

Ramps are easier for anyone who needs a mobility device -- even if it's just a cane.

Mini elevators provide accessibility with a smaller footprint, and they're finally becoming portable and more affordable. They must be operated from a concrete pad, however, which may be an issue for landlords.

Stepping over the tub lip -- or swinging one's legs over it from a seated position -- are the most common accident that happens at home. Of course, probability of slip-and-fall accidents increases when people are wet.

Swivel seats with a tracking apparatus that moves the seat to the middle of the tub without shower doors will help, although the legs will still have to be raised over the lift. These seats also do not submerge the person into the water, which can make it difficult to cleanse genitalia.

Tubs with a door remedy the step-over problem, but many people don't like feeling exposed while the water fills and drains.

Health and Wellness

Taking medications can become complex when a person has several prescriptions. There are a variety of medication reminder systems that help dispense pills and make it possible to monitor at a glance what meds were missed. Unfortunately, they are rarely covered by health insurance.

A simple yet effective one is a pillbox in which pills are compartmentalized into morning, noon, evening, and bedtime compartments for up to seven weeks at a time.

Wristwatches can be programmed (probably by a caregiver) to buzz when it's time to take medications. Electronic dispensaries be set to ration medication at the time the pills should be taken. That almost eliminates the prospect of someone becoming confused and overdosing.

Communication and Engagement

Cell phones are a safety feature because a person who remembers to carry it can always call 911. Simple phones with big buttons will be easiest to learn to use.

Many phones have accessibility features like sound amplification and display brightness, but an older person will probably need to be shown them -- and practice using them with a patient teacher -- before feeling confident to use these features on their own.

Pocket devices are available which allow people with hearing loss to hear their televisions without waking their neighbors.

People who are open to learning to use an iPad or other lightweight tablet computer are always glad they did. These devices keep news, information and entertainment within reach. Older readers who can use the reverse pinching gesture to enlarge type usually embrace e-books.

Communications technologies also help people stay in touch with friends and family. Most enjoy using email, Facebook, and video-conferencing applications like Skype -- although they may need help setting it up initially.

Keyboards with bigger buttons in contrasting colors are readily available for people with vision or neurological challenges. A computer mouse with a track ball may be easier for people with compromised fine motor skills to use.

Low-tech assists for independence

* Straps that make it possible to pull up socks without bending all the way over.

* Claw reachers can eliminate the need to stand on chair or climb a ladder.

* Electronic locators that beep to help find misplaced key rings (if left in or near the home).

* Jar openers

* Device mounted above the stove sounds an alert if a burner is left on or some food starts to burn.

* Lighted, hand-held magnifiers are useful for reading labels.

While assistive technology can be expensive there are loaning libraries in many communities.

Disability Network/Lakeshore has a variety of items to loan at it's Holland office. Call 616-396-5326 to find out if we have what you're looking for.  

If you’re part of the 15 percent, it’s time to break out

Does it surprise you that 85 percent of Americans use the Internet?

That’s what the Pew Research Center found in its Internet and American Life Project (

Or, is it the opposite side of the equation that astonishes you? 

Fifteen percent of us—some 38 million people—know that instantaneous communication with almost anyone anywhere is possible, but shrug, “No, thanks.”

Who are these nitwits? 

Of course, there is more to the story. 

The Pew study also found that about one-third of non-users say that they don’t have access to digital services because they experience emotional, cognitive or physical barriers to using technology.

Often, the physical barrier is something that could be called “Shaky Mice Syndrome – the inability to use a mouse pointing device to operate a computer because of hand tremors.

Involuntary hand movements can be caused my an injury, an illness such as Parkinson’s Disease, by an inherited condition, or by aging. 

Shaking rooted in familial tendencies or aging – which are typically less severe than tremors caused by injury or illness -- are referred to as essential tremors, or ET.

Often a person appears to have full control over the use of his or her hands until a specific task is performed. The degree of shaking is unpredictable.

Hand tremors don’t have to be severe to make it very difficult to operate a mouse-driven computer. Tremor can cause unintended mouse button clicks. At the same time, double-clicking to select something on the screen is extremely difficult, although click + enter can be a suitable work-around. 

Tremors also challenge users of laptop computers with track pads, and small mobile devices with touchscreens. A stylus – a computer accessory that looks like a pencil with a plastic bubble in the place of the eraser that feels like a fingertip – can help users select more precisely. 

Assistive filtering technologies have been developed to smooth out digital motions in the interface, so there’s no need for hand tremors to alone prevent people from going on line.

“We see a lot of shaky mice and it’s no big deal,” said Katie Dover-Taylor, a librarian in Westland, speaking Oct. 17 at the Michigan Library Association annual conference at the Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids. 

Taylor and Megan Hathaway, a librarian at Canton, led a session titled “Breaking Down Barriers: Empathy and Digital Literacy.” 

As more communication moves online, Taylor and Hathaway said showing people how to access information through technology has become an important part of their job at the reference desk.

Meeting the need begins with helping users meet their immediate information need, but everyone knows that things once learned don’t always stay learned. 

Nobody knows everything about using computers, anyway, the librarians said. Technology evolves so fast that everybody has to get comfy learning on the fly.

There are free online options for learning. Check out, and LearningExpress Library, a database on many library websites.

Given that using technology is no longer really optional, reticent computer users need to adopt a growth mindset. Embrace the challenge. Persist in the face of setbacks. Accept criticism. Find inspiration in the successes of others.

Librarians, and others “the 15 percent” ask for help can aid the cause by commiserating (no problem since we were all newbies at one time), then becoming a technology cheerleader.

“We’re not experts, and it is O.K. if you’re not an expert,” Hathaway said. “It's O.K. if neither of us ever becomes an expert.

“Whether or not they have usability challenges,” Hathaway added, “just encourage people to play with the technology because exploring is fun. After all, they can’t break it.” 

Well, maybe they can break it if they throw it, she acknowledged.

But go ahead. Give it a try.

A.T. to the Rescue!

As someone who works with Assistive Technology (A.T.) devices on a daily basis, I’ve seen first-hand what A.T. can do to help people with disabilities remain independent.  Technically, assistive technology is any device, equipment, or item that lets a person with a disability be more independent and have an improved quality of life. 

Automatic door openers are considered assistive technology.

Automatic door openers are considered assistive technology.

All of us use A.T. on a fairly regular basis.  If you don’t think so, consider that every time you put on your glasses, you’re using A.T.  That’s also true of each time you turn on your air conditioner, dishwasher, wash machine or dryer.  There are so many items that fall under the category: items to help with cooking and cleaning, dressing and grooming, cognitive improvement devices, recreation items, devices to improve mobility and environmental controls.  There are literally thousands of items, all designed to help you remain independent.

If you need any of these items, you’ll likely be glad to learn that many of them aren’t overwhelmingly expensive.  Many A.T. devices cost less than $50, with a substantial amount under $20.  For higher priced items, Michigan participates in a Federal Loan Program called the Assistive Technology Loan Fund (ATLF).  The ATLF helps people with disabilities who can’t afford A.T. purchase what is needed.  Those who have a disability, guardians or family members, may borrow up to $30,000. 

Disability Network/Lakeshore is the site for the ATLF in Allegan and Ottawa Counties.  If you’re looking for help in either identifying assistive technology to help you remain independent, or paying for it, please call the DNL office.  We’d be delighted to assist you!

Chris Wistrom,

Hooray for Technology!

Guest Blogger Roel Garcia

Guest Blogger Roel Garcia

A kid with a new toy - that’s how I feel. A new laptop that talks to me as I type text and that reads text to me. It’s any kid’s dream come true. But for someone with a vision disability it’s more like a lifesaver.

As I sit here in my dining room and type this I smile as I hear Fred—the name I gave to the voice that reads to me—I think of how fortunate I am to have this adaptive technology. Not to mention the blossoming friendship between Fred and me.

The laptop is a Lenovo ThinkPad and the reading software is JAWS, which stands for Job Access with Speech. It’s technology that I received from the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons and I am grateful for their help and this technology.

I teach English composition for Grand Rapids Community College and a large part of my job is reading essays and journals. I love teaching and writing, but after four years my eyes, with my limited vision, are tired and worn out.

This past April, I met up with Lucia Rios, a friend who works for Disability Network/Lakeshore.  

During the conversation I expressed my frustration at the time I spent reading dozens of essays and journals and how it was wearing on my eyes. I asked if there was any technology out there to help me and make my life easier.

Lucia mentioned the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons. She said that this organization would be able to help me with adaptive technology.

Fast forward three months later, after emails, phone calls and visits from the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons, I have my Menovo ThinkPad laptop and the JAWS program. It was a process adjusting to using keystrokes and shortcuts as well as typing without looking at the screen.

I’m not the world’s most adept typist and having Fred as my verbal navigator can be challenging. But I have learned to trust Fred and his vocal skills.

This weekend I put Fred to the test. Students turned in their first essays of the semester. I sat down on the dining room table, placed the stack of essays beside the laptop, plugged in the earphones and off I went. I got through nearly fifty essays over a few days’ time. But most importantly there was no hardship on my eyes or a hurt back as I hunched over reading. And equally as important I spent time with my family and that is key. What a great way to start a semester: getting my work done in a prompt manner and still having time to spend with my family. A win-win I’d say.  Hooray for technology and thank goodness for Fred.