Older woman smiling at laptop computer

Smart devices can help older adults stay safe and engaged while living independently. Family and caregivers can have peace of mind, knowing that an older relative has taken their medications thanks to a notification from a smart pillbox, or seeing who comes to the front door thanks to a smart doorbell.

Too often, however, smart devices introduced into the homes of older adults don’t go according to plan. Either they never engage with the technology, don’t receive adequate support in learning how to use it, are afraid to break it, or, worst case, view it as a nuisance or even a menace. 

The following tips are to help caregivers be successful so that when they do spend the time and money to install a smart device in the home of an elder, it makes a positive difference for all concerned. 

Assess smart home readiness

The digital divide varies wildly. Is your mother-in-law open-minded and familiar about new technology or defensive and dismissive? If they are already using a smartphone, tablet, smart TV, or smart speaker, they can download apps to control and/or voice-activate a range of smart home devices. If they aren’t using a smart device at all or only within a very narrow range of function, then installing other smart devices in the home is going to involve a steep learning curve. If they rely exclusively on landlines and cable TV, consider standalone smart plugs, doorbells and lights that operate with both a traditional (manual) and a smart interface.

Tech hurdles

High speed internet is required for most smart devices, but 22 million older Americans still lack access. If this is a problem, try AgingConnected.org, a non-profit that matches seniors with affordable internet options by zipcode. Best Buy also has dedicated resources to help seniors get online.

Beyond broadband access, the top three barriers to tech entry cited by a 2021 survey of over 2,300 older adults are cost, complexity, and security. Before purchase, try to calculate the complete cost, which may include not only the sticker price of the device but installation/home configuration and subscription fees. Next consider ease-of-use versus complexity. Configuring and customizing a new device, which often pops out of its packaging with no manual, and learning how to use basic features are challenging steps for everyone. including older adults. Plan ahead for adequate time and support for caregivers and receivers to achieve competency. If memory issues are a problem, consider a posted “cheat sheet.” And be sensitive to the fact that many older adults have privacy concerns when it comes to sharing personal information. And many don’t like monitoring devices — they feel like they’re being watched. If they have concerns, how can you help address them?

What’s in it for them?  

Many older adults reject a smart device not because of a digital divide or other barrier-to-entry but because they just don’t see a need for it. Seniors “learn new tech skills when that tech has value to them,” writes Joelle Renstrom in Slate. It’s easy for caregivers to get excited by the latest smart device and dream about all of the ways it can make life easier. But think about it from your care receiver’s perspective. What’s in it for them? How will it improve their day-to-day life? Are there any features to play up such as gamification? Can they customize it to match their favorite color scheme, music, or voice? Does it open the door to communicating more often with a favorite grandchild? 

Also, consider their real needs and tackle what’s most important first. Installing smart lighting in the dark bedroom hallway to prevent falls, for example, might be a higher priority than a smart doorbell if your grandmother lives in a relatively secure, gated community with neighbors who watch out for each other. 

Discuss together first, then decide 

This may seem obvious, but it’s tempting to bypass this step, especially when considering a smart device as a gift. Surprise! Your loved one may not tell you that the wifi-enabled digital photo frame you got for their birthday went dark a day after you set it up, or got moved behind a large plant. If an older adult is not on board with your gift in advance, this sort of tech fail is a distinct possibility. 

There is no replacement for you

Smart devices can help keep an older person safe and provide back-up and relief for caregivers, but should never be seen as a replacement for a caregiver’s human touch and care. A monitoring device, for example, still requires a person to take note and make decisions if a dangerous situation occurs. Says Wendy A. Rogers, PhD, in a recent American Psychological Association article about optimizing tech for older adults, “I can’t emphasize enough that technology’s purpose is not to do away with human support, but rather to enhance what is possible.”

Bigger smart screens

Older adults generally prefer larger screens to smaller ones and are one of the most likely demographics to upgrade to a Smart TV, but many don’t know about its videoconferencing ability. So this might be something to explore together. Seeing family faces on a 30” smart TV in “gallery” mode on Zoom versus one-at-a-time on a small smartphone screen could make a world of difference. 

What about Age Tech? 

Age Tech, or devices designed exclusively for people 65+ like the Jitterbug smartphone with its larger buttons and the simplified Grandpad tablet, might be a helpful way to introduce some older adults to smart tech. But David Stewart of Ageist warns that it’s better to “just make a good product and forget about age targeting” because “to equate age with a handicap is to ghettoize a huge group of highly capable people.” The 80- and 90-year-olds that Stewart observed in a pilot study who were given free Apple watches loved them, using them to count daily steps and view text messages. “There was also a noticeable embrace of a device they perceived as being of-the-moment and very cool.” 

Age-specific products that are one-off solutions and/or which carry a stigma (i.e. older adults are prone to fall) are trending down. From 2011 to 2021, according to LInkAge’s 2021 technology study of older adults ages 55-100, use of medical alarm pendants fell precipitously from 35% to fewer than 10%, and key fob panic buttons usage fell by 10% in the two-year period from 2019-2021 alone. Some of this plummet might be due to all-in-one solutions like the Apple Watch, which can detect hard falls and dials 911 if you’ve been immobile for one minute. 

Widen your tech support circle 

Caregivers can sometimes be reluctant to introduce new tech out of fear of being “on call” for endless technological difficulties. To avoid burnout, try not to be the only person on tech support duty. If the product comes with technical support (and the support has a good reputation, is not another layer of frustration), make sure that the phone number or email address is readily available, maybe added to the cheat sheet. 

If you have an older child or teenager in your family or community, consider asking them to pitch in for tech 101 support. Young people love being the authority on a subject that comes naturally to them, and solving tech issues can be a great intergenerational bonding experience. Organizations like Teeniors.com also offer trained teen tutorials on zoom for older adults for an hourly fee. 

Smart devices will continue to improve the ability of all of us to age independently in our homes of choice. Because we’re at the early stages of this age-tech evolution, the going can be a bit uneven. Being aware of any perceived or real tech hurdles you and your care receiver face before adding a smart home device — and discussing them together — will lay the groundwork for success. We wish you and yours the best of luck in your smart-home endeavours!