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Assistive Technology for Cognitive Problems: 10 Gadgets and Strategies for Caregivers

Being a caregiver for a person with cognitive problems that may be caused by dementia, autism, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s disease is challenging.  If you’re a caregiver, you may be so overwhelmed that it’s hard to think of solutions to everyday problems, like taking medication on time or knowing when your charge is getting out of bed. It might seem easiest to carry on doing things the same old way, even if it’s not going so well.

Assistive technology can make your life a lot less stressful and offer your loved one greater safety and independence. You may find some assistive technology solutions to problems you didn’t even know you had.

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Take a minute to think about what’s working and what isn’t. Then consider if any of the assistive technology devices and gadgets listed below might help. Ask your loved one’s doctor or other caregivers for advice on what works. Depending on the nature of the cognitive problems, you could also get information from your local Area Agency on Aging or a disease-specific nonprofit group.

Here’s the rundown on assistive technology -- from alarms to smart phones to voice-recognition software: 

  1. Assistive devices. Start with the basics. If your loved one has a physical disability, as well as a cognitive problem -- MS, for instance -- look into low-tech assistive devices. Try a reacher (a pole with a claw on the end) for getting objects off a high shelf. Even simple items like a can opener with thick, easy-to-grip handles can have a huge impact on a person’s life. They allow a loved one to do things that would otherwise be impossible without your help. That’s good for both of you.
  2. Emergency alert devices. These generally have two parts: a base unit (which connects to a phone line) and a bracelet or pendant with an alarm button for your loved one. They also require a monthly subscription. Pressing the button in case of an emergency alerts the company’s operator, who then notifies local authorities. Some of the devices can also contact an operator if they detect that the person has fallen.

Keep in mind that emergency alert devices are for home use only. The alarm button won’t work when your loved one is out of the base unit’s range. A number of companies – Lifeline, Rescue Alert, and Ready Response – offer similar products with subscriptions. 

  1. ID Jewelry. These are pretty important for people with cognitive problems. You may already know about the MedicAlert bracelets and pendants inscribed with a person’s health information. There are now other variations. For instance, MedicAlert has partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association’s Safe Return Program so that caregivers can be quickly notified if a loved one with dementia is found wandering. Other companies, such as MedicTag, offer a wearable USB device with a flash drive. By plugging it into a computer, a professional could get immediate access to a person’s medical information.
  2. Radio tracking devices. If your loved one has cognitive problems – maybe a young child with autism, or a parent with dementia – he can wear a special bracelet with a transponder. If he wanders from home, a service can track him down remotely and notify the authorities. In addition to the cost of the equipment, these services require a monthly fee.
  3. Alarms. Caregivers have long used egg timers and digital watches to remind loved ones with cognitive problems to take their medicine or get ready for a doctor’s appointment.  But using assistive technology like a PDA (personal digital assistant) or smart phone allows you to schedule a more complex set of daily, weekly, or monthly alarms. Reminder services can also help.  When you join a service such as OnTimeRX, you can enter your loved one’s medication schedule online, and he will get phone calls, emails, or messages reminding him when to take them.
  4. Devices to assist in communication. Assistive technology can also help if your loved one has cognitive problems that affect her ability to communicate – like autism, MS, or Parkinson’s. Handheld devices such as PDAs can allow people to communicate using a touch screen and a synthesized voice. With special software and hardware, computers can be adapted for people with cognitive and physical problems. They can even be controlled by eye movements.
  5. Sensors. Simple motion detectors can be installed on doors. They’ll sound an alarm when opened and you’ll know if your loved one’s gone out. More complex and subtle motion detectors have other assistive technology applications. Some can be monitored via the Internet, so that you can know that your elderly mother has left her bedroom in the morning. Pressure sensors can help too. For instance, they can be placed under a mattress, so when your loved one gets out of bed, you’ll be alerted.
  6. Cameras. One option is to set up a ''nanny cam'' so that you can keep an eye on your loved one via the Internet from home or work. If this kind of assistive technology seems too intrusive, you could also just set up a webcam on a computer -- or sometimes a television -- and do a couple of check-in video calls a day. The cameras themselves are relatively inexpensive. They can be used with pay services or free Internet phone services like Skype.
  7. Locating devices. Is your loved one with cognitive problems constantly losing his wallet or keys? Save yourselves time by buying an inexpensive locating device. First, you attach small plastic tags to the objects that tend to disappear. Then, as long as you’re in range, pressing a button on the main unit will make the tag on the missing item beep.
  8. Electronic pillboxes. Obviously, these aren’t appropriate for everyone. But in some cases, an electronic pillbox – which will automatically dispense medicines – can be a big time saver for caregivers. They also allow a loved one with cognitive problems more independence. Basic devices just spit out pills. More elaborate pillboxes can even tell a caregiver if a pill has been missed.

If setting up electronics or computer hardware intimidates you, don’t get scared off. Ask a relative or friend for some help. Dedicate some time to learning how to use assistive technology. Once you get the hang of it, assistive technology could make a make a big difference in quality of life for both you and your loved one.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on May 29, 2014
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