Being a senior with vision loss often means struggling to achieve that delicate balance between independence and personal safety. Many newly blind seniors experience a growing sense of vulnerability, especially at home, and even more so if you live alone. Children, neighbors, and friends are usually willing to "check in" on you, but at some point all the checking up can begin to feel intrusive. The daughter who calls five times a day to make sure you haven't fallen and panics those few times you can't make it to the phone fast enough. The neighbor to whom you gave a key so she could water your plants while you were away, only now she doesn't want to give it back, "Just in case." You know in your heart they are well meaning, but these are things you should be able to handle yourself.
Like we said, it can become a balancing act between gratitude and resentment. Here at AccessWorld our mission is to keep our readers updated on all the latest access technology. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that we're going to take this opportunity to introduce you to several high-tech devices that can help you live more safely and independently in your own home as a senior with vision loss.
Undoubtedly, you've seen the TV commercial a hundred times: the woman lying on the floor because she can't get up and she doesn't subscribe to their alert system. Perhaps your children have already signed you up, only you hate that blasted necklace and usually leave it on your nightstand after a shower.
Or maybe your kids use the old-fashioned method of calling all the time to check in on you.
You may wish to invest in a smart speaker--an Amazon Echo or Google Assistant. We discuss the many benefits of these devices in our companion article, Making Voice Assistants Smart for Seniors: Tips for Optimizing the Amazon Echo or Google Home, by J.J. Meddaugh, also published in this issue of AccessWorld. One feature of great interest here, however, is the ability to use one of these devices as a voice-activated communication system. With either you can reach help from across the room—on the floor, for example, when you trip over the laundry basket you forgot you left near the bed.
Neither of these devices will summon the police, but you can reach anyone on your contact list from anywhere within speaking range. The small version of these devices, called the Echo Dot and Google Mini respectively, can cost as little as $25 on sale, so consider buying several and putting them in various rooms around the house, including the bathroom. Your family will feel safer knowing you're covered and will become much less intrusive.
The Key to Security
Home security begins at your front door, with a good lock. You probably have a deadbolt, but how many keys are out there? Does that include the one you hid in the porch planter, just in case? Or the one you think you lost somewhere in your house, or maybe in the store parking lot?
Why not go from key to keypad and install a high-tech door lock that works with a code number of your choice? According to Chris Grabowski, creator of the accessibility podcast and tutorial publisher Mystic Access, "There are several benefits to these locks, especially to the vision impaired." First and foremost, you don't have to keep track of keys. "They can also include handy extras, such as the ability to set single-use key codes for repairmen or others you need to allow inside but don't want to give a key," notes Grabowski. "Also, many of these keyless locks can be set to engage automatically a minute or two after you close the door. That way you never have to wonder whether or not you locked the door behind you." It's also impossible to lock yourself out of the house. "Just make sure the lock you select includes a keypad control, and not a flat touchscreen," Grabowski advises.
Increasingly, keyless door locks are able to connect wirelessly to a smartphone app, your home security system or smart speaker. With these you can check the status or unlock your door lock from your living room couch or from a Caribbean beach on vacation.
Knock, Knock, Who's There?
Remember when you used to be able to glance through the peephole, or open your door on a chain, to see who was at the door? Now,with your vision impairment, the best you can do is shout "Who's there?" through the closed door and hope your recognize the voice, or that it really is the UPS man with a package you need to sign for. Perhaps it's time to install a video doorbell. The most popular two are the Ring Video Doorbell and the SkyBell WIFI Doorbell from SkyBell Technologies.
At first glance, so to speak, it would seem pointless to replace a peephole with a video doorbell. But these doorbells also transmit audio directly to your smartphone and will sound an alert chime on your smart speaker (Amazon Echo and Google Home for the SkyBell, just the Echo for Ring).
A video doorbell will also alert you when anyone approaches your front door, and allow you to switch on the outside microphone and listen in even before he or she rings the bell. You can set either dorrbell to record porch events and save a copy in the cloud for later viewing by family members or, if need be, by police. You can even answer the door from that same Caribbean beach, or have your sister who owns a loud dog be the voice that deals with a suspicious sounding visitor.
According to Grabowski, "Video doorbells also discourage porch pirates," which is to say criminals who roam the neighborhoods looking for unattended packages on front porches to steal.
Grabowski has tested both Ring and SkyBell, and he reports both are screen reader accessible. He prefers the Ring product, however, mostly because of its extended features and accessories.
Guarding the Castle
Of course the ultimate in sleep-well security is a whole-house alarm system, and perhaps you already have one and subscribe to a monitoring service as well. But is your equipment accessible? Can you arm and disarm the alarm and motion detectors accessibly, or change the PIN yourself? Or is the bay station a touchscreen device?
Let's go back to Chris Grabowski, who recommends two accessible systems: Abode and various enhancements and monitoring packages from Ring.
The basic Abode Security Kit includes a Gateway that connects to your home's internet router, two door contacts, four window contacts, one motion sensor and a key fob. Additional items can be purchased and easily installed. You can monitor your Abode system yourself, or enroll in one of several remote monitoring packages.
Grabowski reports the Abode software is screen reader friendly and can be connected to either an Amazon Echo or Google Assistant. "A sales rep even opened my product box before shipping and emailed me the ID code I'd need to register the gateway."
If you already have a Ring Video Doorbell then you're already halfway to a full-featured alarm system. The company offers an extensive selection of accessories, from a solar powered motion detecting spotlight camera to indoor motion sensors. They can all be configured and controlled through the same app as your video doorbell. The company also now offers a monitoring plan that will alert law enforcement directly when necessary, and the ability to record and store the last 60 days of camera events.
Both Abode and Ring will pair with a number of different keyless door locks, chimes that alert you to outside activity, and other smart home devices.
The purpose of this article was not to recommend any single product or service over others. Instead our goal was to give you a brief overview of what's available, and to let you know that it is possible to a more balanced sense of security versus dependency. The home security marketplace is evolving rapidly, but hopefully we've given you the information you need to ask sensible questions and select the products that will not only keep you safe, but do the job accessibly.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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- Smartphone Apps for People New to Vision Loss by Bill Holton
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