I first started testing smart-home devices more than 20 years ago, when the only smart-home devices were X10. I’ve been covering smart-home gear for Wirecutter since 2016, and I’ve had my hands on everything from in-wall light switches, LED bulbs, and water-leak detectors to video doorbells, outdoor security cameras, and security systems. I’ve also written tech articles for The New York Times, Wired, and Men’s Health, among others.
For this guide, I interviewed doctors and experts who specialize in smart-home technology for those aging in place, including William Dale, MD, PhD, a doctor at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center and director of the Center for Cancer and Aging Research; Andy Miller at AARP; Laurie Orlov, analyst and founder of Aging and Health Technology Watch; and Kris Thompson, smart technology specialist and CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist) at the Oak Hill NEAT Center. I also consulted research from Wirecutter’s previous guides to emergency-contact systems and pill dispensers.
This guide is for the family member, friend, or caregiver who is supporting an older adult’s decision to live independently. According to AARP, there are about 55 million people over the age of 65 in the US. And 87% of those surveyed say they plan to live at home rather than transition to some sort of care facility. In part that’s because the idea of living out the rest of one’s years in a different place may be a frightening prospect—both mentally and financially—for some people.
For some, the costs of assisted or nursing care are simply too high and out of reach. A 2020 Genworth survey indicates that the median cost of assisted living in the US is around $4,500 per month—with nursing homes costing more than double that.
Smart-home devices can be there when you can’t, providing a 24/7 connection to help ensure safety, assist with daily tasks, and allow you to check in on a loved one. Most smart devices are simple to set up with a smartphone; they also send notifications when activated, and in many cases they provide remote-access control. Thoughtfully assembled, a discreet system that you put together can allow you to monitor and assist a loved one, in emergencies or just day to day, depending on your situation.
The decision to use this technology is a weighty issue due to security and privacy concerns. All of the experts we spoke with noted that the decision to install any devices should be made with the consultation and blessing of the senior in question. “Safety is of highest importance, and if a person has to be home alone, a way to monitor them is reasonable after an explanation to them and others who are helping to care for them,” said William Dale, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Cancer and Aging Research at City of Hope. “It is also important to note that if a person can’t be safe at home due to cognitive impairments, then one should consider a different living arrangement. The camera can only observe, and it still requires someone to monitor and act quickly on a dangerous situation that occurs. It is not a replacement for the necessary involvement to keep someone safe.” If the senior is mentally incapacitated or has trouble making sound decisions, Dale recommends talking to a medical provider or the individual’s medical power of attorney. “A conversation should also include the impaired person, even if they aren’t able to remember it later. A note from the doctor that says she is recommending this, which can be shown to the person later, can help,” he added. “In some cases, especially if paranoia is part of the symptoms a patient is experiencing, the risks may outweigh the gains from being able to observe someone.”
Several of the experts we spoke with were quick to point out the importance of partnering in advance with the person who will be living with these devices so that they better understand how it can help them feel safer and more comfortable, and even live a more independent life. The person should be fully informed that the devices are there, what they do, and how they work. It’s also important to remember that most smart-home devices are not one-size-fits-all. People aging in place don’t range just by age: Speech, motor, and mobility issues may have an effect on the devices that seniors need or want, although many options may overlap with those for people living an active, completely independent lifestyle. “I’ve actually done an assessment for a senior who wanted to start gaming and playing Grand Theft Auto, so I can never generalize,” said Kris Thompson, smart technology specialist and CAPS at the Oak Hill NEAT Center and manager of the organization’s mobile demonstration center, the Smart Home on Wheels. “I never know what each individual will be comfortable with or what they won’t.” (Note: Grant funding for the Smart Home on Wheels is provided by the Consumer Technology Association Foundation, AARP of Connecticut, AmRamp, and the State of Connecticut Tech Act Project. They have no financial connections to any of the products we’ve covered in this guide.)