Increasingly, many older people who live alone are not truly alone. They are being watched by a flurry of new technologies designed to enable them to live independently and avoid expensive trips to the emergency room or nursing homes.
Bertha Branch, 78, discovered the power of a system called eNeighbor when she fell to the floor of her Philadelphia apartment late one night without her emergency alert pendant and could not phone for help.
A wireless sensor under Ms. Branch's bed detected that she had gotten up. Motion detectors in her bedroom and bathroom registered that she had not left the area in her usual pattern and relayed that information to a central monitoring system, prompting a call to her telephone to ask if she was all right. When she did not answer, that incited more calls — to a neighbor, to the building manager and finally to 911, which dispatched firefighters to break through her door. She had been on the floor less than an hour when they arrived.
Technologies like eNeighbor come with great promise of improved care at lower cost and the backing of large companies like Intel and General Electric.
But the devices, which can be expensive, remain largely unproven and are not usually covered by the government or private insurance plans. Doctors are not trained to treat patients using remote data and have no mechanism to be paid for doing so. And like all technologies, the devices — including motion sensors, pill compliance detectors and wireless devices that transmit data on blood pressure, weight, oxygen and glucose levels — may have unintended consequences, substituting electronic measurements for face-to-face contact with doctors, nurses and family members.
Ms. Branch, who has severe diabetes and heart disease, said she could not live on her own without the system, built by a Minnesota company called Healthsense.
"I lost a very close friend recently," she said. "She was also diabetic and she fell during the night. She didn't have the sensors. She went into a coma."
Without the sensors, Ms. Branch said, "I would probably be dead."