Best Buy bets on tech for monitoring elderly parents

Amazon’s Alexa device is just part of the technology installed in Jane Helgesen’s home to help her four adult children watch over her.

There are also motion detectors and sensors that track activity.

“They monitor my sleep, which is a big thing,” she said. “They’ll monitor people going in and out of my house. As I get older and if I need more medication, they can check and see if I’m taking it. The medication door should open and shut.”

Helgesen’s home also has high tech lights, thermostats, door locks and doorbell cameras that respond to voice commands or programmed settings.

Helgesen agreed to be a guinea pig for Best Buy, where her daughter Britt Stanton works.

Helgesen’s Amazon Echo integrates into Best Buy’s Assured Living system. 

Initially, she wasn’t too keen about being monitored. She’s 71 and still working as a nurse.

“My first reaction was, ‘I think I’m a little too young for that,'” she said. “My second reaction was ‘Boy, I want to be a part of that just to see what it could do.’ I’ve had two adult parents who have recently gone through some need for technology like this and they didn’t have it.”

Stanton could figure out her mother was ill one night after getting multiple alerts about her mother getting out of bed. Stanton said she likes the peace of mind the monitoring can provide.

“I can see activity throughout the house,” she said. “I can see if her doors are locked or who comes to the door, to the doorbell. The thing I love the most is that I know what her sleep habits are because sleep is such an important indicator of her overall well-being.”

Equipment costs start at a few hundred dollars. Monitoring costs $1 a day. Other companies offer similar services, including GrandCare, greatcall and Sen.se.

But Best Buy is looking for new opportunities as arch rival Amazon moves into an area Best Buy pretty much had to itself — installing home electronics.

Best Buy is still testing its Assured Living concept, and only in the Twin Cities. If it looks promising, the company is hoping to use its national retail network and sales expertise to make monitoring a mass market.

Assured Living's doorbell camera.
MPR photojournalist Evan Frost is seen on the from the doorbell camera of Helgesen’s home on the Assured Living app on her daughter’s iPhone. 

AJ McDougall, general manager of Best Buy’s strategic growth office, is optimistic.

“We have customers every day standing in our connected home area of the store, saying, ‘What here can I do that helps me ensure that mom or dad is living independently, safely on their own?'” McDougall said.

A lot more devices could be integrated down the road, from smoke and water leak detectors to stove monitors.

For now, though, Best Buy is trying to find the right balance between useful and intrusive. The goal is just to determine if a parent is OK. So video cameras are out. Caregivers, not Best Buy, determine when they receive alerts and what triggers them.

McDougall said the service includes a free consultation to figure out what children and parents want to accomplish and how and assess how comfortable they feel with the technology.

“We want this to be a family decision. We want mom to feel very, very comfortable with the solution in her home,” McDougall said.

An Assured Living sensor sits on a shelf.
A motion sensor blends in with decorations above the kitchen sink in Helgesen’s Woodbury, Minn. home on Wednesday/ 

One of the big questions Best Buy faces is whether the nation’s elderly will submit to electronic surveillance for their kids’ peace of mind.

At the West Seventh Community Center in St. Paul, senior citizens exercise, play cards, socialize and differ on the idea of using technology to provide additional eyes.

Pam Boardman wishes she had such monitoring for her brother.

“I’d be interested in it,” she said. “My brother just passed away, but he had schizophrenia. And he lived alone. There was no way to know if he was leaving the apartment ever.”

Carol Halloran said her late husband needed monitoring when she left the house.

“My husband would not have wanted to be watched,” she said. “But I would have wanted him to be watched.”

As for herself?

“I don’t want it,” she said, because she doesn’t see a need. At her housing complex, neighbors religiously check on each other daily.

“Sometimes these systems are positioned as this great solution when in fact I’m not sure it’s that simple,” said University of Minnesota long term care professor Joseph Gaugler, who is studying the effectiveness of remote activity monitoring.

Information overload can be a problem, he said.

“It’s not just about generating reams of information for somebody,” Gaugler said. “It’s how do you provide that information in a way that’s useful for family so they can act on it.”

But experts see more upside than problems.

Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging director Dawn Simonson said senior citizens’ happiness depends greatly on staying in their homes. And she sees them embracing technology to do that.

“Much will depend on the relationship of the of the family and the individuals involved,” she said. “But for many I think it will be just what they need.”

The state has supported many technology projects designed to help older adults live at home longer. That’s included video conferencing links between seniors and physicians and other professionals who help elderly clients with their physical, mental and social well-being.

And keeping the elderly in their homes longer and out of nusing homes saves families and taxpayers lots of money.

“We’re really looking to technology and trying to create more awareness and use of it,” said Kari Benson, director of Aging and Adult Services at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, “because we do know that it can make a difference.”

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