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Smart Home Technology

There are several “smart” devices that improve the functionality and safety of a home. They’re great options for universal design.

It takes a lot of brainpower, communication, and collaboration to design a home that’s functional for everyone. A great deal of thought goes into the physical features of a universally designed home to allow people with a wide variety of abilities to complete their meaningful occupations.  In addition to the physical layout of a home, there are assistive technologies available that enable people to perform their daily tasks and duties with more independence. Many innovative devices on the market are able to improve the functionality of, and safety within, a home. In this post, I am going to elaborate on the benefits of assistive technology (AT) and describe smart home devices that promote safety and independence.

What is Assistive Technology?

Occupational therapists utilize assistive technology (AT) in a variety of ways to provide their clients with more autonomy. Assistive technology is defined as:

“any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities”

AOTA Fact Sheet: Providing Assistive Technology Devices and Services

Examples of AT include mobility devices, shower chairs/tub benches, toilet aids, grab bars, adapted utensils/cooking equipment, communication devices, computer aides, hearing aids, etc. Assistive technology can range from low tech to high tech, but no matter how tech-savvy the device is, it’s purpose is to help the user be more independent in their occupations. Check out this article titled “A professional’s guide to assistive technology” for more information!

There are many examples of assistive technology that can be used to optimize the functionality of a home and allow for more control and capability for engagement in occupations. The term “smart home” is often used to describe the assistive technology within the house that allows homeowners and tenants more control of their environment.

“A smart home, or smart house, is a home that incorporates advanced automation systems to provide the inhabitants with sophisticated monitoring and control over the building’s functions. For example a smart home may control lighting, temperature, multimedia, security, window and door operations, as well as many other functions.

Smart Home Energy

Occupational therapists who specialize in assistive technology take ample time to research, use, and recommend appropriate devices that are a good fit for their client. What works for one person might not work for another. Tony Gentry, an OT specializing in AT, stated that “people with mobility limitations, cognitive impairment, personal care needs, or a desire to transition from supported to independent living or to age in place are good candidates for a smart home intervention.” As technology advances, smart home intervention is becoming more and more popular to help people overcome barriers and enhance their quality of life.

Here are some examples of smart home technologies and their implications for different human impairments:

Amazon Echo and Google Home

The Amazon Echo can do a plethora of things via voice command. You can ask Alexa to read you the newspaper, keep a to-do list or grocery list, report traffic and the weather, or call people on your contact list. For example, you could say….

“Alexa, turn on the lights” 

“Alexa, play the Good Fit Poor Fit podcast on Spotify” 

“Alexa, adjust the thermostat to 72 degrees”. 

… And the command would be performed. 

Similar to the Amazon Echo, Google has produced the Google Home which is used by many to manage their smart home.

Once set up, the Amazon Echo and Google Home can control the lights, temperature, door locks, fans, cameras, garage doors, etc. via voice control. These devices can help everyone, but it’s especially helpful to individuals who’ve lost upper extremity function, have impaired upper extremity function, and/or difficulty manipulating items with their hands. Kids, adults, and the elderly can easily control things within their home with just their voice once the smart home hub is set up. Additionally, these cool pieces of assistive technology allow people to engage in leisure activities like listening to music, playing games, reading audiobooks, or watching movies or tv shows, no matter their abilities.

Smart Doorbell Cameras

Smart doorbell cameras are all the rage these days. There are many different companies (Google Nest, Ring, Arlo, etc.) that are producing smart doorbells that allow homeowners to see who is at their front door via their smartphone or another device. These doorbells are motion activated and immediately send an alert to the homeowner’s phone with a real-time video. Once the alert is answered, you can talk with the person at your door through the phone. This technology is helping many families know when their kids get home from school and when their packages are delivered, with the added bonus of keeping your property secure. It’s even helpful in worst-case scenarios, like if your packages are being stolen off your porch or if your parked car was involved in a hit and run. 

These high-tech doorbells are also beneficial for older adults who might not be able to respond quickly enough to a standard doorbell because of their slow pace, unsteadiness, or reliance on a mobility device. It is also helpful for someone who uses a wheelchair for mobility, as they might not be able to access the peephole on their front door due to its height. Additionally, someone who is blind or has impaired vision could simply ask “who’s there” through their phone to find out who’s at their front door. There are many populations that could benefit from a smart doorbell. 

Keyless Door Locks

There are many different styles of keyless door locks on the market. Some require you to enter a code using numbered buttons while others are synced with a smart home hub, such as the Google Nest, allowing the door locks to be controlled via a smartphone. This is helpful for people who have poor fine motor control, decreased grip strength, or limited dexterity which makes it difficult to manage a key and unlock the door. These automatic locks can create unique passcodes that allow family members, friends, or caregivers to access the home. This is helpful for people who have pet sitters coming to let out their dogs and for caregivers to enter the home, eliminating the need for the person requiring care to answer the door.

Another cool feature of these automatic keyless door locks is that they light up at night. This makes it easier for everyone to use, but especially those with vision impairments. Home improvement stores, like Home Depot, have many automatic door lock systems available. Check them out, here!

Motion Sensors

Motion sensors can be used in a variety of ways to protect your home and the people inside it. Yes, motion sensors can let you know if a burglar is trying to enter your home, but they’re also useful to monitor elderly grandparents, someone with a neurological condition who has an increased fall risk, or someone with an intellectual disability who wants to remain independent. 

Motion sensors can be placed strategically around the house to know when family members are moving about the home. Some motion detection systems can send a text or alert to a caregiver’s phone to let them know a sensor has been activated. There are also motion detection systems that can alert the caregiver if there is no movement inside the home, indicating the person inside might have fallen and can’t get back up. Care Innovations has created a monitoring system, called QuietCare, that records a person’s daily activities and notifies the caregiver if their activity patterns change.

Additionally, motion sensors can be helpful for people who care for individuals with autism, as they sometimes like to wander. Putting sensors by entrances/exits can alert caregivers if they are trying to run off. This idea can translate to caregivers of people with dementia or Alzheimer’s to prevent them from leaving the house and getting lost. 

Overall, these motion sensors can give caregivers some peace of mind, knowing their loved ones are still being monitored even if they are home alone. 

Stove Monitoring Device

A stove monitoring device is a safety measure that, in my opinion, should be implemented in all kitchens; from college dormitories to assisted living facilities. A stove monitoring device will turn off the stove if it’s left unattended for a certain amount of time. It tracks movement, so if there isn’t any movement near the stove for 5 mins, it shuts off the stove. This is useful for individuals with traumatic brain injuries who might have trouble remembering to turn off the stove, someone with dementia who is forgetful, or a young teenager with ADHD who’s easily distracting while cooking a meal. It’s a low-cost way to prevent fires and injury for individuals living with or without physical or cognitive impairments.

Smart Vacuums

Smart vacuums (like Roomba and DEEBOT) have gained popularity over the past decade and are getting more and more advanced; the newest Roomba model even empties itself! For those of you who might be unfamiliar with smart vacuums, these round robots are designed to vacuum your home without you having to lift a finger. This technology is especially helpful to older adults with arthritis or decreased strength and endurance, individuals who use mobility aids, people with limited upper extremity strength or loss of function in their arms, and just about anyone who doesn’t particularly enjoy vacuuming.

Automatic Pet Feeders

An automatic pet feeder can ease the burden of feeding your beloved pets when you’re working long hours or have a physical or cognitive impairment, as these devices are programmable to dispense food at various times throughout the day. For someone with mild memory loss, an automatic pet feeder is useful if they’ve ever forgotten to feed their pet. It can also be beneficial for someone who has physical impairments, such as decreased strength and coordination in their upper extremities due to a stroke, injury, or other diagnoses that affects their ability to scoop food into a bowl for their pet to enjoy. An automated pet feeder is also useful for individuals who are unable to bend forward to put the food bowl on the ground. For example, individuals who recently had a hip replacement or spinal surgery would benefit from this device as one of their precautions is not to bend forward. 

Automatic Medication Dispenser

Within the aging population, many individuals are on strict medication regimens to prevent disease, ease symptoms of various diagnoses, or to stay healthy and independent. Because these regimens can be complicated, companies like Hero Health and MedMinder have created automatic medication dispensers that release the correct dosage of medication at the right time. This innovative device is keeping seniors safe and preventing overdoses. This is particularly helpful for people with cognitive and/or memory impairments who might not remember taking a dose, so they take another one. Caregivers can also be alerted if a dose is missed. These devices are helping many people adhere to their strict medication regimens, which ultimately aids one’s ability to remain independent while promoting a better quality of life

Final thoughts…

There are many, many more assistive technologies, and smart home devices, available that help people complete their daily activities and manage their homes. However, there was no way I could list and describe all of them in one blog post! So, if you use, or know of any other devices, please comment down below!

I hope you see how smart home technology allows a wide range of users control over their environment while promoting engagement in many different occupations. Imagine the possibilities when you integrate universal design features with smart home technology!

Thanks for reading!

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