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Smart homes, the game changer for residential care you’ve been waiting for

“Hey Alexa, play my cooking playlist.”

Just by reading this, you know what I am trying to do. You know I am talking to technology, not my friend, Alexa. Phrases like this have pretty recently entered our everyday vocabulary. We’ve become more and more familiar with “smart” technologies in our own homes, from speakers to thermostats.

Sometimes I find myself thinking, ‘well this is great, but I think this technology could be used for more than playing music’. Fortunately, some folks are way ahead of me.

Many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) rely on Direct Support Professionals (DSP) for support with activities of daily living, medication, nutrition, and mobility. As the DSP staffing crisis persists and more care is being delivered at home and in the community, providers are now looking to technology to support the delivery of these services. You might be wondering, “What does this have to do with Alexa and your cooking playlist?” Well, smart homes leverage technology solutions like Alexa to provide the services people with I/DD need, while giving them independence they crave. Innovative thinkers at providers and health plans are executing on technology-enabled smart homes.

Smart homes can help address the DSP staffing crisis. As Brian Hart, COO at LADD, put it, “Even if the state magically had a billion dollars a year more to fund I/DD services, we won’t magically have 80,000 more DSPs to come in and provide the services.”

What is a smart home?

A smart home operates on the idea that everyday items like thermostats, fridges, and alarms can incorporate technology to become almost autonomous. For example, a thermostat can adjust itself based on the temperature outside. A fridge that notifies you when it is running low on groceries, and so on. Where we used to require people at every step, technology can now do most of the heavy lifting. Think, a house that can manage itself.

Technology is increasingly seen as a viable solution to provide more person-centered care and personalized supports. In 2021, the use and planned use of smart homes for I/DD was noted at 15%. This is a dramatic increase from 0% in 2019, according to a report by Otsuka. Providers like LADD are integrating innovative staffing models to go alongside their smart homes. They are moving away from shift-based staff to staffing as-needed by intervention.

Smart homes can easily be tailored to the needs of their residents. For instance, bedrooms can come equipped with fall prevention pressure pads linked to lighting, as most falls tend to occur overnight on trips from the bed to the bathroom. Smart beds can monitor sleep patterns and body temperature to track whether residents are sick or have a medical emergency during the night. Integrated video screens in the bedroom allow residents to set reminders and customize them based on their lifestyles.

This kind of technology presents the best of both worlds for people with I/DD. Smart homes can offer the independence so many want, as well as the on-demand support they need. Smart homes can decrease reliance on staff and improve the quality of life of the people living in them.

A Successful Smart Home Project

Beth Lohner is a resident of a Tennessee smart home. She gets quite nervous during thunderstorms. Through the technology in her smart home, she can contact a service provider to help talk her through her anxieties exactly when she needs the support. This instant connection and contact allow people like Beth to maintain their independence while still providing access to assistance in their most vulnerable moments.

Tennessee’s Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) launched the first phase of an Enabling Technology program in 2017. DIDD works alongside six supportive living technology vendors that provide tele-caregiving, remote monitoring sensors, and mobile applications.

These smart homes are equipped with:

This pilot program provides insight into the real-life impacts for those with I/DD through personal stories. Brad Presnell, an Enabling Technology participant, had always hoped to live on his own. Early diagnosis from doctors made that outcome seem impossible. Through wearable and smart home technology, Brad’s vision came to life. Brad was one of the first people approached by DIDD to gauge whether he would be interested in testing the new smart home technology.

Since then, he says the smart home has transformed his life.

Paulette Presnell, Brad’s mother, explains that without this technology, this type of independence for Brad could not have been achieved. Raymond Lowe, a DIDD employee that has been working alongside Brad for over six years, said, “You very seldom see life changes in your life, especially in your job, but this is a life-changer for everybody.”

We are excited for these pilot projects to report more outcomes like Brad’s and grow in scale to support even more folks. It is truly an excellent example of what is possible with technology for independence and person-centered care.


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