For many older adults today, especially those aging solo, there is a stage of life in which they feel capable of continuing to live on their own, completely independent. In urban areas that means being able to navigate public transportation, walk comfortably and confidently for several blocks, and shop for the necessities of life. For those who live in suburban or rural areas, this stage also means still being able to drive, at least in daylight hours. There are no hard and fast numbers associated with this stage, but in general it includes people between the ages of 70-85.
For most people in that stage, it also means they have a circle of friends they can depend on to join them for a night of theater, a day trip to the city, or a short vacation. For those with family nearby, it is a stage that is often filled with visits to and from adult children and grandchildren.
As recently as 50 years ago, most people didn’t live long enough to warrant concern with this stage of life. The expected lifespan for a person born in the U.S. in 1950 (baby boomer) was 67 years. However, significant progress in medicine and science since that time has made it likely that baby boomers, especially women, who tend to be healthier overall, will live 85+ years. In fact, for every 100 women age 65, there are only 77 men, and when they get to age 85, women outnumber men in the U.S. by 2.6. The result is a lot of women (and a few men) living alone in later life.
In today’s world, “aging-in-place” usually means aging alone, and we have people aging alone all over the country. Some cities and municipalities have made age-friendly accommodations for older adults in their community by adding or modifying infrastructure such as non-slip pavement and curbs with ramps; sufficient pedestrian crossings with adequate crossing times; good signage inside and outside of public buildings; frequent and accessible transportation options; easy-to-reach community and health services; and clean, well-maintained public toilets. These and many more are part of the guidelines for age-friendly cities created by the World Health Organization (WHO).
These enhancements to most cities and towns in the U.S. have made senior living much easier and more enjoyable for older adults. However, once a person goes home for the evening, they can feel pretty isolated and alone for many hours. The solo agers I have spoken with in the last five years often share with me a concern they have about experiencing a medical emergency during the hours they are alone and not being able to get to a phone or even being unconscious. For most of them, it is not a nagging, constant worry, but rather something they think about from time to time.
Some concerned solo agers (especially those with serious underlying medical conditions) have subscribed to a medical alert service. These services consist of two components – a base station and a wearable device. When the subscriber presses a button on their wearable device, a call goes through to a monitoring center and subsequently to an operator who can assess the situation and dispatch emergency services if needed. Some services come with a GPS so the user can get help anywhere, and some even come with sophisticated fall detection sensors.
These services are also appealing to the adult children of these seniors who worry about whether mom or dad will have a medical emergency. However, the older adults themselves are often reluctant to wear them, believing a bracelet or pendant with a help button brands them as frail and helpless.
Another safeguard option is a senior check-in service. When a subscriber signs up for this service, he or she gets a check-in call every day at a certain time. If the recipient does not answer after several tries, the service notifies the designated caregiver on the account (usually an adult child or other relative). With most services, if the caregiver does not respond the service calls the local authorities (police or fire station) to do a welfare check on the subscriber. Some of these services provide an automated call and others provide a personal (human) caller each day. As you can probably guess, these commercial check-in services are generally not free. They range from $15. To $150. per month, depending on whether you are okay with an automated call or require a human connection and whether you want additional check-in questions.
There are a few government-sponsored senior call services that are free. They are local, usually county-based, and staffed primarily by volunteers. Senior Touchline in Broward County, Florida is an example of such a service. A small handful of others exist around the country, mainly in places with an abundance of people over 65. Some places of worship also provide free check-in services, staffed exclusively by volunteers.
Snug Safe is one commercial program that has a basic free level. It is the newest player in the field and is based on an app for the smartphone. Subscribers set up the account, choose their emergency contacts and daily check-in time. The app then sends them an alert at their appointed time every day to check in. The subscriber then clicks on the app and taps the big green button. If the subscriber fails to respond, the app alerts the emergency contact by text. Snug has a more sophisticated plan that includes more levels of intervention, but if the subscriber is comfortable with smartphone technology and has an emergency contact nearby, the free app may be all that is necessary.
Baby boomers, as a whole, are comfortable with technology and the vast majority of that generation already uses smartphones and other tech devices for a multitude of reasons. Now, as they increasingly move into the age range where an additional safety device will be a consideration, an app-based system like Snug Safe is likely to be their first choice, if for no other reason than it isn’t like the one their grandparent used.