AbilityNet Factsheet - November 2023

Using technology to help elderly or disabled relatives from afar

We all live busy lives, and sometimes it might not be possible to check on our loved ones as often as we might want to. Here, get ideas about the Smart technology that can help us stay in touch from afar, by checking in without being intrusive.

Last updated: November 2023

1. What is "Smart" technology?

"Smart" technology, devices that are connected to the Internet allowing us to connect from anywhere in the world, are handy for keeping an eye on our own homes when we are away. But these same devices also offer ways for us to check on loved ones we might have particular concerns about, making sure they are safe and well, whilst ensuring that those loved ones can remain independent in their own homes.

2. Smart Technology using Alexa and Google

The Amazon "Alexa" voice assistant devices enable you to set up "drop in". This is like an intercom between your Amazon Echo devices that can also be set up to work across the Internet (so from your Echo device to a relative's device).

Smart device placed next to a smartphone with 'Welcome Home' on the screenYou will need to enable the service on your relative's Echo device, but once enabled, you will be able to connect directly, for example: "Alexa, drop in on Mum..."

The Echo you connect to will play a chime to notify the recipient when you connect, and then you can just have a conversation as if you were right there in the room. You should make the other person aware that you can connect at any time and you should consider the privacy implications of this, and make sure your relative understands this. 

Once set up, and if used thoughtfully, the "drop in" feature can be a nice way of informally checking in on a relative without being invasive. You might arrange to do so at a regular time or just a quick "Hi, how are you?"

Another option to consider is allowing the connection from your relative to your device. This way, the control is with your relative, they can choose to reach out if they need something, or if they just want a bit of a chat when they're doing the washing up.

3. Interior cameras

Remote monitoring using devices with cameras can be more problematic. We have to balance our desire to look after someone with that person's right to privacy.

However, we also need to recognise that there are many examples where an individual might be at risk and a short-term solution is needed before more specialist care is necessary or available.

Amazon's Echo Show devices (the devices with in-built screens) also have in-built cameras. These cameras can be set up to allow remote access (secure connections across the Internet) so we can use them to view what is happening in a room. 

There is a physical switch on the camera that disconnects it and covers the lens and this privacy option does mean your relative has control of when they may or may not want to be seen. However, this not only requires a basic level of understanding about how to use the device, but also means that if they do this, you might not be able to check in when you need to.

4. Exterior cameras and doorbells

Slightly less problematic are devices such as video doorbells and/or external security cameras. Both Amazon's "Ring" and "Blink" options, as well as Google's "Nest" offer affordable options with good in-built security and features that make them worth highlighting.

Other good systems are available, but don't be persuaded by the cheaper options as these typically cut costs with security and can be difficult to set up or connect with any existing smart technology.

Woman ringing outside doorbellA video doorbell can be connected to a screen in your relative's house, giving the security to see and talk to whoever is at the door without having to open it. This again requires a level of comfort with using technology such as an Echo show or a smartphone to act as the screen and intercom for the doorbell.

However, you can set up the Ring, Blink and Nest video doorbells so that from your relative's perspective they operate just like a standard push-button-and-ring doorbell (you are likely to need a separate 'ringer' unit - just a plug-in chime). From your relative's perspective nothing will change, the doorbell will ring and they can answer the door as they always have.

You can share the connection to the doorbell so that it will notify you on your smartphone when someone calls and will allow you to see and speak to the caller, perhaps to politely assert, for example, "No, my Dad just told you he doesn't need his guttering replaced, thank you!". Some video doorbells do have the ability to record video and this can be downloaded at a later time. Subscription fees will apply.

Video doorbells also operate as external security cameras and will not only notify you of people approaching the house, but also when people leave. This might be a useful feature if a relative has taken to walking about at unusual times or if they are prone to getting lost.

You might also connect to the audio to ask them where they are going, but again, be mindful of the potential that a disembodied voice can have to scare!

Similar to video doorbells, external video cameras can also be shared and provide the ability to monitor any visitors to a home. Most have the ability for two-way communication as well as an in-built siren that you can activate remotely to discourage any intruders, including the occasional urban fox.

5. Movement technology

Smart technologies don't necessarily have to be direct monitors. Most systems have an option for sensors such as contact sensors (that detect if a door is open), and passive infrared sensors - also known as PIR motion sensors (sensors that detect someone moving about). These can be set up to notify you when they are triggered, so you get the reassurance that your loved one is up and about, but without the intrusion of a camera or the shock of a voice suddenly coming from nowhere.

Even devices such as smart plugs and smart lights can be set up so you get a notification if the kettle has been switched on, for example, or if the bathroom light was triggered during the night. You can also create a routine using Alexa or Google that includes a 'push notification' to your phone as part of the routine. For example when your relative says "Alexa play Radio 4", it will play Radio 4, but then send you a notification on your phone giving you the reassurance that the daily routine continues.

6. Smoke and safety detectors

You might also consider sensors such as smoke or leak detectors. However, if you do so and you are not local to your relative's house, make sure you have someone close by who you can contact to physically check on your relative. There is nothing worse than a notification of what could be a significant issue if you are powerless to do anything about it.

There are also specific apps that can help maintain the independence of an individual whilst providing peace of mind for a relative.

GGCare, for example, uses Amazon Alexa, but adds the ability to build helpful routines and reminders into the interactions. The routines themselves can be accessed on a webpage 'dashboard' so you can check when each one has been completed. For example, taking medication or attending a doctors appointment. 

7. Non-smart technology

If your relative doesn't have or doesn't want to have smart technology in their house, charities such as Age Concern sell alarms where if a client has a medical emergency they can contact a call centre, which can contact a family member if needed.

There are many different providers that can supply alarms. Careline UK offers this service, for a monthly subscription. Helping Hands provides a comprehensive guide to the different types of alarm systems that are available. Some of these can be worn on the wrist, and others can be worn around the neck.

Sometimes our elderly relatives have technology, especially computers, that can be outdated and therefore often do not work very effectively. Sometimes the solution is often to get a new computer, and we have some alternative great top tips:

  • Windows Anti Virus should stop you from getting viruses and malware on your system
  • Ease of Access functionality should make it easier for your loved one to use the computer. Look at our My Computer My Way step-by-step guides for help setting up specific software. 
  • Enable a function where your loved one is able to locate the mouse cursor quickly, by just hitting CTRL. 
  • Make sure you remove any unwanted programs or apps (AKA "bloatware").
  • Make sure you remember to allow the system to connect to your loved one's WiFi connection. To make things easier, you can adjust settings to connect automatically to WiFi.
  • There are lots of pieces of useful free software.  Open Office is a great productivity suite that allows you to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. If your loved one has access to Gmail, then they can get access to a lot of free productivity packages such as Google Docs. 
  • If you yourself set the computer up, you may find it easier to offer remote support if needed.  One of the best-known apps is called Team Viewer. Make sure you tell your loved one that remote support can only be given by trusted sources.
  • Make sure you install a password reminder app. Here are some of best password reminder apps to consider. 
  • Make sure you enable automatic updates. 

Don't forget that if you don't feel comfortable setting up the device, you can always ask one of our friendly Tech Volunteers to assist you!

Free webinar recording: Top tips for boosting your digital skills, with BT Group and Age UK
In this informative and interactive webinar recording, you'll learn how tech can benefit people of retirement age with everyday tasks.

8. How AbilityNet can help you

My Computer My Way

My Computer My Way is an AbilityNet run website packed with articles explaining how to use the accessibility features built into your computer, tablet or smartphone. The site is routinely updated as new features and changes are made to the Windows, MacOS, iOS, Chrome OS and Android operating systems. The site is broken down into the following sections:

  • Vision – computer adjustments to do with vision and colour
  • Hearing – computer adjustments to do with hearing, communication and speech
  • Motor – computer adjustments to do mobility, stamina and dexterity
  • Cognitive – computer adjustments to do with attention, learning and memory

Use it for free at My Computer My Way - mcmw.abilitynet.org.uk

Advice and information

If you have any questions please contact us at AbilityNet and we will do all we can to help.

  • Call: 0300 180 0028
    Please note: calls to our helpline number cost no more than a national rate call to an 01 or 02 number and count towards any inclusive minutes in the same way as 01 and 02 calls, and AbilityNet does not receive any money from these calls.
  • Email: enquiries@abilitynet.org.uk

IT support at Home

If you are looking for in-person support, you can book a free visit from one of our disclosure-checked volunteers. Many of our volunteers are former IT professionals who give their time to help older people and people with disabilities to use technology to achieve their goals. Our friendly volunteers can help with most major computer systems, laptops, tablet devices and smartphones.

Contact AbilityNet via our website - www.abilitynet.org.uk/at-home

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