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Beyond bedrails and bathmats

To make sure an older loved one is safe at home, some simple modifications are a given. But is it necessary to install a camera or “granny cam” in the living room? MSNBC’s Teri Goldberg reports
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

To make sure an older loved one is safe at home, some simple modifications — grab bars, non-slip mats — are a given. But is it necessary to install a camera or “granny cam” in the living room or attach talking electronic gadgets to the bottom of prescription medicine bottles?

Even with the latest technology, you can’t watch a loved one 24/7. Nor would you want to. But you can check in periodically from your home, office or even a hotel room if you have access to a personal computer and have installed a remote video monitoring system (RVMS), which are sold at eyeonelders.com.

The RVMS is a small camera with a built-in Web server that uploads images to a secure server. Family members can view the images from any PC with a common browser. This means the caregiver buys a camera and modem, installs them in the home and then, for a monthly fee, can access the images that have been automatically uploaded at eyesonelders.com.

Low maintenance
The point of the RVSM is not to spy on a family member but to observe common routines, and see if there are any dramatic changes. Cameras are typically placed in “the more public areas of the home,” says Joyce Thomas, an electrical engineer who created the system. The camera won’t prevent a fall or injury, but you can respond as soon as possible, adds Thomas, who used a PC and Web cam to monitor her husband, who suffered a stroke. Unlike a Web cam, the RVMS granny cam requires little or no maintenance. Once you plug in the camera and modem, it runs on its own.

Installation is as simple as connecting the modem to a telephone jack, Thomas says. The instructions that come with the camera make the task look relatively simple. Once installation is complete, the consumer sets the days and hours the camera will be turned on.

Since most home modems are not fast enough to transmit video, the cameras are set to take pictures at periodic intervals. Caregivers determine how often the camera takes a picture. The downside to periodic snapshots is that they can make it look like the person is jumping in and out of the picture. But unless the person being watched is extremely active, a snapshot every minute is usually sufficient, Thomas says. The company also archives the last 1,000 images, so if you set the camera to take an image per minute, you can view the last 16.6 hours of activity.

Eyesonelders.com, based in Encinitas, Calif., offers six different plans, raning in price from $629 to $1,700. The $629 system comes with a dial-up modem for indoor use. A fixed lens takes 10 frames per second. This lower-end system is generally all that’s needed to monitor a loved one in their home. The $1,700-set up uses broadband technology and can be used outdoors. A variable focus lens takes 30 frames per second, which produces a smoother video. Motion detectors are also available for the higher-end cameras.

In addition to the cost of equipment, at least two monthly fees are required. Access to the VisionAge Technologies Web site costs $20 and a typical Internet Service Provider (ISP) runs about $20, whereas DSL or a cable modem can cost up to $60. If you plan to upload images frequently, you may want to consider a dedicated phone line, which runs about $10 a month.

All talk, no action
A much simpler and less costly home-safety device is the Talking Rx, an electronic device that attaches tothe bottom of a prescription bottle and helps people keep track of their medications. A 60-second message can be recorded on the computer chip-driven gadget: Just push in a button with the stylus that comes with the small circular device and record. To be on the safe side, John Dobbins, a pharmacist and inventor of the patented device, recommends that a health care professional record the message.

A typical message includes the name of the medication, how to take the medication and important side effects. One can listen to a sample message at talkingrx.com. The Talking Rx runs on three 1.5 silver oxide batteries and fits 12, 13, 16 or 20-dram prescription bottles as well as common vials used to store insulin or eye drops.

Joyce Kane, of Stratford, Conn., says the Talking Rx changed her life. “It put me back in control of my medications,” says Kane, who tested the product for the Millennium Compliance Corp. before it was available to consumers in April 2001. Kane lost her eyesight five years ago as a result of insufficient blood supply to the retina during heart surgery, and now takes nine medications daily. Before the Talking Rx, Kane not only had to depend on her husband to take her medications but she also had no idea what she was taking.

Consumers can purchase the Talking Rx directly from Millennium Compliance Corp. at talkingrx.com for $15. The company also posts a list of non-virtual pharmacies that sell the device.

Buyers beware: Prices for the Taking Rx vary widely online, up to a high of $49.95.

Don’t sweat the small stuff
Ever notice how difficult it can be for a loved one to open something as simple as a box of egg noodles? Do you fear they will be tempted to grab a kitchen knife and just slash off the top? If that’s the case, a simple box topper, such as the one sold at thewright-stuff.com can solve the problem and prevent minor injuries. A “spongy oversized handle” supports the bright yellow plastic box topper, which sells for $6.95.

Another useful-yet-simple tool that makes life easier is the food bumper. The circular rails snap onto to a 9-to-11 inch plate, and serves as a barrier to scoop food on to utensils. Conversely, the food bumpers stop food from falling on the floor, and therefore, can prevent unnecessary slips. Plastic bumpers, priced at $6.95, come in translucent, white, blue and yellow. A stainless steel variety costs $16.95.

At goldviolin.com, an e-shop that mostly sells products for seniors, the company has smartly packaged six simple tools together, all invented by Frank Halstead of San Jose, Calif. The kit, priced at $36, includes a key turner and doorknob/faucet turners for stubborn fixtures, a jar lid opener that fits many sized jars, two colorful citrus peelers, a simple string bottle holder for a 2-liter container and a small plastic device used to haul plastic bags.

Carry a HandyBar
Safety is not only a concern in the home. Recently I received dozens of e-mails asking about a new device featured on the “Today” show that helps seniors safely exit their cars. The HandyBar, a steel metal bar with a soft-grip handle, helps provide leverage to push oneself out of a car. It works by locking onto a car door’s striker, a u-shaped metal plate mounted near the door.

The HandyBar, which weighs less than one pound, can support up to 350 pounds and fits most American and virtually all-Japanese cars, says Darryl Adrian, vice president of sales at HandyBar. To make sure the bar works with your vehicle, check out the list of cars posted at the company’s Web site.

The Web site also has an infomercial — really a series of diagrams — that illustrates how to use the tool. If the jazzy electronic music in the background drives you nuts, turn off the volume. The bar, which comes with a lifetime guarantee, is assembled and packaged in Victoria, British Columbia, with the assistance of the Burlington Association for the Intellectually Handicapped and The Hamilton Association for Community Living, two groups that encourage the use of handicapped workers in the community.

You can’t buy the HandyBar directly from the company. But several shops stock the bar online, and at a fairly uniform price. The Handybar costs $39.95 at mobilityusa.com and aztrucks.com, and sells for $39.99 at senioremporium.com.

Teri Goldberg is MSNBC.com’s shopping writer. Write to her at personalshopper@msnbc.com