Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

Let’s Keep Moving – Safely, at Home

Soon after turning 70, Marianne Buzza knew it was time to downsize. But it wasn’t about the size of the house. “I love to garden and had created a bit of a monster. We needed a smaller yard!” she says with a laugh.

She and her husband, Wally, also wanted to live in the town of Wasaga Beach, ON, so they didn’t have to rely so much on driving. They found a townhouse that’s “perfect for us,” with plenty of extra space in the basement and a loft for visits from the kids and grandkids.

The new home also came with two flights of stairs. While Marianne, now 75, and Wally, 86, are both mobile, they recognized that the stairs put them at greater risk for falls. “A lot of people our age have mobility, but our balance is sometimes not what it used to be. We need that extra bit of stability.”

The couple found the solution in a new product called StairSteady (see below for details), manufactured in Whitby, ON. The fixed handrail uses a moveable support handle for users to grasp when going up or down stairs (see sidebar). “It goes at your pace because it’s not motorized. It can take a lot of weight and you can really lean into it,” says Buzza, adding that it blends right in with the décor. “It will be a selling feature because a lot of retirees move here.”

As more baby boomers enter their 70s and 80s, home safety will become increasingly important. For example, products and services to prevent falls, or to reduce the risk of wandering for people with dementia, are fast becoming available. Perhaps it’s time to update the old saying to, “There’s no place like a safe home.”

And it’s not just about safety. It’s increasingly about building and equipping homes that better support the changing needs of older adults, particularly in the areas of mobility and memory. Such foresight may help avoid moves to retirement homes or assisted living. In fact, Mary Huang, a family caregiver who helped move her 86-year-old mother and 90-year-old father out of their house to a condominium, would describe home-based support as a societal priority.

“Many people have no option but to stay home,” says Huang, an information technology consultant. “Retirement homes are expensive, and the waiting lists for long-term care are crazy. We need to be more creative, and this is where technology can come into play.”

Big plans for high tech

In 2016 Huang became involved with AGE-WELL, a national network of researchers partnering with government, businesses and non-profit organizations to develop innovations that support “aging well,” ideally in the comfort of one’s own home. As a caregiver and with her background in technology, Huang is excited by what’s coming from the network. “It’s good to see the federal government investing money in research outside the current models for healthcare and homecare.”

Smart sensor technology, for example, is a big focus for AGE-WELL. From garbage cans that signal when they need to be emptied to furniture that monitors vital signs and movements, homeowners can live more independently, and caregivers can provide support more efficiently. Artificial intelligence and non-intrusive computer vision will lead to devices, such as “social robots,” that learn people’s habits, interact with them and notify caregivers if issues emerge.

One of the first AGE-WELL products to become commercially available is Braze Mobility’s sensor technology for wheelchairs, to help people (of all ages) navigate their chairs more safely (see below). More than 60 products and services are in the works, all of which aim to transition from research to reality in the near future. “The start-up companies coming out of AGE-WELL are going to accelerate, which will lead to competition and more options for consumers,” says Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, a Toronto-based researcher and CEO of Braze Mobility. “This is especially important for the aging population, because so many of their needs are currently unmet.”

YouAreUNLTD.com is pleased to launch “No Place Like Safe Home,” a series of articles about what you can do to continue living safely and independently at home. Coming next: how building standards are changing, and retrofitting options for your current home.

Safe At Home

StairSteady

StairSteady originated in the UK, and Hillz Tech of Whitby, ON, is licensed to manufacture and sell the handrail system in Canada and the US. StairSteady uses mechanical-brake technology that responds to the user’s weight on the moveable support handle. “It’s like a walker for the stairs going up and a seatbelt going down,” says Ron Hills, founder of Hillz Tech. Because it’s considered part of the structure of the house, StairSteady is approved by the Canadian Standards Association when installed by an authorized contractor. Participating Shoppers Home Health Care stores and WellWise stores carry the product – in Ontario only, for now, but availability is expected to grow as more installers are authorized. The cost is approximately $100 per step for the installation and the product. Hillz Tech has applied for HST-exempt status, which would pave the way for possible financial assistance, for those eligible, from provincial disability programs.

Braze Mobility

This Toronto-based company offers sensor-technology systems for power and manual wheelchairs. The chairs use a combination of lights, vibration and audio (i.e., a beeper) to alert users when approaching walls or objects that may be difficult to see or navigate, especially when backing up. “Across the board our test users emphasized the desire for rear visibility,” says Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, CEO of Braze Mobility. The technology currently can be purchased online, and Viswanathan hopes to announce its availability in retail stores in the coming months. Pricing ranges from $550 to as much as $2,500, depending on the user’s needs. The company is meeting with provincial and federal governments to address the issue of affordability for low-income households.