04/13/2012 10:36 am ET Updated Jun 22, 2012

What Nanny Cams Need To Work For The Elderly

A friend recently noted that parenting her parents was a lot like parenting her kids, except the kids came with more homework. Actually, I think she was wrong on the homework part: Figuring out which Medigap policy to pick for Mom is right up there with the complexities of 10th-grade math.

It was just after this conversation that a press release landed in my inbox promoting, an organization that bills itself as one of the nation's largest educators and certifiers of caregivers. Its executive director was commenting that there are an awful lot of new devices intended to help keep our aging parents in their own homes, but these technologies only work if someone on the other end is paying attention. I couldn't agree more.

Things like interactive cameras, motion detectors and smart toilets are all terrific, but just like the Nanny Cams we used when our kids were small and we wanted to check up on the people whose care we left them in, somebody needs to be watching. And with no disregard intended to, more often than not, that somebody is us -- the adult children who, in many cases, have one eye on the Granny Cam and another on the SAT tutor.

Yes, remote-care technology can extend the amount of time people can safely live on their own, but don't underestimate the burden it puts on the primary caregiver.

Dr. Cathleen Carr, executive director of, says telecare devices can help caregivers see if their elderly parents are doing everyday tasks, like going through the mail or paying bills. (Another, perhaps lower-tech way, is just to request that the utilities let you know if Dad falls behind in payments or have all his bills come to you in the first place.)

Telecare has also found a way to monitor whether they take their medicine, leave food cooking on the stove and forget it, or leave perishable food out when it should be put away. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags can be used to track misplaced objects like glasses and keys. And motion detectors can sense and report what time Dad gets up and goes to sleep, whether the refrigerator door was closed and whether pill bottles were opened.

Telecare can also help spot other signs of someone not being able to cope properly, Carr said, for example, a person answering the phone when the doorbell rings. "People appear to function on their own, but their wires are beginning to get crossed or frayed," she said.

A properly trained and licensed caregiver who understands telecare can help a senior stay at home longer so they can preserve their independence, maintain a level of safety and save money, said Carr. All three, admirable goals.

But at the end of the day, the buck of responsibility stops at a family member's door. Good to know though that help can be hired.