Smart Tech for Seniors

Technology can make the residential environment safer and more functional for individuals preparing for their golden years.

by Tracy Hegg

Keeping older or physically challenged adults safe and independent in their own homes has become a top priority, and an array of new technologies on the market is helping to achieve this goal. With the bathroom and the kitchen being two places where a great number of accidents happen, it’s no surprise that many of these innovations are focused on these two rooms. 

Most kitchen and bath designers are already familiar with basic principles of universal design, also sometimes referred to as aging or living in place: ample widths of doorways, halls and passageways; plenty of room for wheelchairs or walkers to turn around; space under work surfaces or vanities to roll under; zero-threshold entries; drawers and sinks that aren’t too deep for easier reach; roll-out shelves and non-slip flooring. These elements help promote safety and ease of mobility and access throughout the home. 

Additional elements are becoming important in universal design, and many are technology based. For example, smart-home technology offers ease of operation and connectivity for homeowners’ devices, and also keeps them connected to loved ones who live elsewhere.

“Smart tech allows families to stay connected to those they care about. It empowers active seniors to stay in their own homes for years to come, giving them freedom and smarter, independent living,” says Felicia Ratka, president of TBI Smart Home Solutions in Fort Washington, PA. “This technology also gives their loved ones peace of mind, knowing that their elderly parents are safe and comfortable.”

Author and wellness expert Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS, points out that seniors should have technology that facilitates remote caregiving, such as sensors that detect falls, nonfunctioning appliances and plumbing leaks. “That way, loved ones can look after them without invading their privacy.”

Ratka adds that systems don’t have to be extensive or complicated. For instance, a handful of sensors can monitor daily activity patterns. A loved one can receive an alert if the front door opens in the middle of the night or, for someone who takes medicine regularly, caregivers may be alerted if the medicine cabinet has or hasn’t been opened.

And, seniors are more open to using technology than many might think. “We tell our senior clients that technology is freedom,” remarks Toni Sabatino, AKBD, principal of Toni Sabatino Style in New York. For example, during COVID, a lot of people needed telehealth, and it became a godsend for people isolated in their homes, she explains. 

When incorporating technology, especially for seniors, ease of use is key. If the technology is frustrating for the homeowner, it won’t be used.

Ebony Stephenson’s design features an oven with a swing-out door and telescoping racks, which provide greater access to the cavity. Items stored in drawers are easier to reach than those deep in cabinets. — Photo: Ebony Stephenson

Seniors and Beyond

Of note, the U.S. population is aging at a rapid rate. From now through 2036, 10,000 people will be celebrating their 65th birthday every day. There are currently about 73 million baby boomers (age 58 to 75) in the U.S.

Louie Delaware, CLIPP, president and founder of The Living In Place Institute (LIPI), which confers Certified Living In Place Professional designation, notes that 85% of baby boomers have no plans to sell their homes, and 78% of boomers own their own homes, which amounts to about 33 million properties. That’s a lot of homes with the potential to be upgraded with smart tech to benefit older Americans.

What’s more, the next generations of homeowners – Gen X, age 42 to 57, and Millennials, age 26 to 41 – not only want smart-home technology in their remodels, they expect it, and they expect designers to know the latest innovations. So, it behooves today’s designers to raise their tech game. 

“Universal design is not just design for seniors – it’s good design,” remarks Ryan Herd, CLIPP, founder of Caregiver Smart Solutions in Pompton Plains, NJ. These elements can be important to people of all ages, as a 35-year-old person has a 50 percent chance of becoming disabled for 90 days or longer before the age of 65, and about 30 percent of Americans aged 35 to 65 will suffer a disability of at least 90 days during their working careers. Smart technology assists in creating beautiful, connected environments that improve lives and promote independence and dignity for all ages and abilities, he adds. 

“We all know people who have or have had a temporary or permanent challenge, by injury, illness or disease,” states Delaware. “When these issues occur, their homes can become a challenge. We need to maximize their ability to function with these conditions…It’s better to plan ahead instead of scrambling when there’s a sudden emergency or change.”

“Tech that makes your house more secure, more safe, more comfortable and easier to use is not just for those who are aging in place. It can benefit anyone – someone who is convalescing, for instance – and it also helps preserve dignity for compromised individuals who visit us,” remarks Sabatino.

Caregiver Smart Solutions recommends that motion sensors, monitors and emergency buttons be strategically placed throughout the home. — Photo: Illustration by Caregiver Smart Solutions

Apps and Home Assistants

One of the first things to consider when incorporating technology into a design is the home’s overall capacity, or network bandwidth, to handle the number of WiFi-enabled devices and appliances. This is just one of the reasons it’s important to get a technology integrator involved at the start of a renovation. Designers can find integrators with whom to collaborate through CEDIA and the Home Technology Association.

An integrator will ensure that the WiFi is powerful enough to accommodate everything from cell phones and televisions to smart lighting, a security system, sensors and smart appliances.

“It’s important for seniors to have a level of broadband service that facilitates an uninterrupted visual telehealth meeting,” stresses Gold. “It’s often helpful when the physician can see patients, as well as hear their voices.”

Integrators also make sure that the systems are installed properly and that devices can communicate with each other. The difference between a smart home and a connected home is that a smart home may have a lot of individual systems or devices operated by an app on a phone, while a connected home allows those systems to work with each other.

“Having 15 apps on your smartphone is the equivalent of having a slew of remote controls on your living room table that each control one device,” Ratka explains. “But the connected home truly becomes smart when all those devices can speak to each other and trigger various events.”

For example, a homeowner can come home and remotely open the garage door; the truly smart home automatically disarms the alarm system and turns on interior lights.

Home assistants like Google Home or Amazon Alexa can function as hubs to control various systems with voice commands.

“I think voice control has been tremendous, especially when it helps someone with mobility, dexterity, balance or vision issues,” says Gold, who penned Wellness by Design: A Room-by-Room Guide to Optimizing Your Home for Health, Fitness and Happiness (Simon & Schuster/Tiller Press, 2020). “Window coverings, light and temperature controls, doorbell and entertainment access can all be operated with voice commands.”

Voice control systems, such as this one from Josh.ai, helps individuals with dexterity or mobility issues function more easily around the home. — Photo: Courtesy of Josh.ai LLC; Photo by Nicholas Freeman // Wellness by Design (Tiller Press, 2020) © J. Gold

Kitchen & Bath Tech

Among the benefits of kitchen-specific technology are remote operation of appliances via app or voice command, monitoring whether the range has been left on or if the refrigerator door is open, being notified if there’s a power failure or leak, having appliances do self-diagnostics, and even monitoring supply levels of dishwasher soap.

“With connected appliances, you can register with the manufacturer and, if something goes wrong, you can log in with the app and a diagnostic technician can often walk you through the fix,” reports designer Sheri Proffitt Gold, CKD, CLIPP, LIPI Ambassador and Advisory Board member. “If a repair person needs to come to fix the appliance, they will already have the part with them. This saves time and multiple trips.” Connected smart appliances have the added benefit of getting automatic updates over the internet, she adds.

Remote operation allows the homeowner to preheat and set a timer for oven operation, she continues, citing a new Kitchen Hub feature from GE Appliances that allows connectivity, recipe call up, modification of recipes for dietary needs, and sending instructions to appliances for temperature and timing. This assists individuals who might have trouble reading fine print or operating knobs on a range, for example.

Induction cooking, which is electric cooking using magnetic coils, heats the pot, not the cooking surface, so there’s no chance of burning skin, Proffitt Gold observes. “If you forget to turn the cooktop off, it will turn itself off when the pot is removed. From a sustainability standpoint, with induction cooking, 93% of the energy used to heat that pot stays in the pot, so there’s only a 7% energy loss. With gas, only about 38% of the energy used to heat the pot stays with the pot. The rest dissipates into the air. This is a benefit, especially for people with asthma.”

A smart microwave can be programmed via scan-to-cook using the package barcode, explains Herd. “This is easier for vision-challenged individuals, or those with dexterity issues.” He adds that, with appliance technology, “you can even adjust the oven with voice control when you’re in the middle of cleaning a chicken.”

For universal design, knobs on ranges and cooktops should be easy to reach, and it’s helpful if the knobs have a lighted feature that indicates when the burner is on. Some of today’s smart ovens have motion-sensor technology that allows the cook to open the door with just the wave of an arm. 

Ebony Stephenson, principal of Designs By Ebony in Virginia, notes that ergonomics is also important when considering oven placement and configuration. She frequently specifies a multifunction electric Bosch oven with a swing-out door, installed below a cooktop.

“The advantage to using this version of the oven, where the door swings out to the left, is that the clients could swing the door out of the way and have much easier access to the oven,” she explains. “Not having to lean over a dangerous hot oven door that flips down was beneficial for a client with back issues, and this will be beneficial for years to come as she and her family age in place. The side-opening door paired with the telescoping racks offer better ergonomic access to the oven cavity. We also like the autoprobe and the colored control panel with easy-to-use buttons and digital display.”

Wall ovens can also be installed a few inches lower on the wall than traditional placement, to give better access to someone who might be in a wheelchair, use a walker or have height issues. A microwave or speed-cooking oven drawer can be mounted in a lower cabinet for greater accessibility, as well.

A wall-hung toilet with bidet, such as this one from Duravit, can be set at optimal height for accessibility, allows for easier cleaning, and provides automatic amenities for cleansing and hygiene. — Photo: Courtesy of Duravit/ Product Designer Phoenix Design // Wellness by Design (Tiller Press, 2020) © J. Gold

Beyond the appliances, many faucets can now be turned on and off via voice activation, and commands can also dictate the amount of water dispensed as well as the temperature. Some faucets also have LED lights that indicate the temperature of the water so users don’t get burned. And, of course, touch technology allows the user to nudge the faucet with an elbow or wrist if hands are contaminated with raw meat, for example, helping to keep the handle bacteria-free.

In the bathroom, personal hygiene and ease of cleaning the space are the top considerations.

For Maria Stapperfenne, CMKBD, CLIPP, of Whitehouse Station, NJ-based Tewksberry Kitchens & Baths and a LIPI Ambassador, a wall-mounted toilet is a go-to. “It gives more space in the bathroom, and it also makes it easier to clean under and around the toilet.” 

She also recommends installing an outlet behind every toilet. “You can easily suggest it’s for their Bluetooth speaker, a night light or a phone charger, but down the road, it’s there for a luxurious bidet toilet seat. For someone with mobility challenges, having their personal hygiene taken care of means they don’t need assistance in the bathroom, which preserves their dignity and their ability to remain independent.”

Convincing Clients

While designers concur that discussing aging in place is never an easy conversation to have, there are gentle ways to get around a client’s discomfort.

“When your client objects to your inclusion of these items, which will make their lives – and everyone else’s lives who use this space – better for years to come, I find the best approach is to tell stories that are relatable to you, and hopefully to the client,” advises Stapperfenne. “For instance, don’t call them ‘grab bars,’ call them accessories. Today, many accessories – like beautiful towel bars and toilet roll holders – function as grab bars with the proper fasteners and blocking. Yet they don’t have an institutional look; they are a beautiful part of the design.”

Gold notes that, if someone has a serious, ongoing health condition, it’s helpful to involve healthcare providers (including a physician, geriatrician, occupational therapist, physical therapist, etc.) to find out what may – or may not – make sense for the project.

Security is also very important, stresses Sabatino. “When clients express concerns about in-home security, privacy issues, in-home cameras or being ‘spied on,’ I remind them that they constantly have their cell phones on them, which provide a pretty good snapshot of what they’re doing and searching. As a society, we have accepted the convenience of a cellphone as a tradeoff for getting targeted ads, or for the WiFi-enabled dishwasher knowing that you’re low on detergent pods and automatically ordering more. People today are realizing that the cameras at home are enhancing security.”

As many kitchen and bath designers know, and Herd agrees, clients want to live in a place as long as possible. “The key [for designers] is to understand how the clients use and move in their environment and what’s important to them,” he observes. “We are all about layering smart technology on top of beautiful design to make the best of both worlds.” ▪

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