Assistive Technology (AT) tools are products that improve or maintain independence and safety.
A loved one may need help because they experience vision or hearing loss, lack of mobility, cognitive (thinking) impairment, or are limited in activities of daily living (ADLs). ADLs include dressing, bathing, grooming, eating, and toileting. Some tools can also help an older adult at risk of falling, wandering, or getting lost.
Assistive Technology is a broad term that includes any equipment or devices which support independence and safety. Examples of “low tech” AT are canes, magnifiers, and pill organizers. “High-tech” devices include computer applications and programs, sensors, and smart phone and tablet applications or systems.
- Mobility aids and durable medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, canes, crutches, prosthetic devices, and orthotic devices.
- Hearing aids to help people hear or hear more clearly.
- Cognitive aids, including computer or electrical assistive devices, to help people with memory, attention, or other challenges in their thinking skills.
- Computer software and hardware, such as voice recognition programs, screen readers, and screen enlargement applications, to help people with mobility and sensory impairments use computers and mobile devices.
- Tools such as automatic page turners, book holders, and adapted pencil grips to help learners with disabilities participate in educational activities.
- Closed captioning to allow people with hearing problems to watch movies, television programs, and other digital media.
- Physical modifications in the environment, including ramps, grab bars, and wider doorways to enable access to buildings, businesses, and workplaces.
- Mobility Devices that enable persons to be physically active.
- Adaptive tools and utensils to allow those with limited motor skills to eat, play games, and accomplish other activities.
- Devices to help perform tasks such as cooking, dressing, and grooming; specialized handles and grips, devices
Even with advances in technology, the top three most popular AT devices remain:
- Walkers, canes, or crutches
- Aids for bathing or toileting
- Wheelchairs or scooters
AT is a rapidly growing need. Current population projections suggest that over 50 million, or close to 20% of Americans, use some type of assistive device. In a 2018 update, the World Health Organization states that globally, over one billion people need one or more assistive products.
How to choose the right device
With so many products in the marketplace, it can be confusing to determine which products might be right for your needs. Here are a few basic tips:
- Talk to the health care provider about what they recommend, based on the older adult’s physical and thinking limitations.
- Physical or occupational therapists can asses and identify tasks that your loved one needs to be able to do. What do they recommend? Without a good assessment, it’s easy to get drawn into buying a product that looks good and may be expensive, but doesn’t really address needs. Ask the health care provider for a referral.
- Pick the simplest product available to meet the needs.
Simpler devices are often easier to use, are less expensive, and are easier to repair and maintain than more complex devices.
- For example, if someone does not have difficulty remembering to take their medications but gets confused about which pills to take at which times, a weekly pill organizer filled by a caregiver or a pre-filled subscription service would solve the problem. Purchasing an automated pill dispenser with alarms to remind the person to take medications would be more complicated than necessary and would certainly be more expensive than the simpler pill organizer.
- Ask other people about products they have found to be helpful.
- Ask to use the device on a trial basis to test its helpfulness.
Ultimately, your care recipient’s opinion about a certain piece of AT is the most important. If an AT device is not simple to use and is comfortable, your loved one may not use it.
Where to buy
Many low-tech devices can be purchased at your local pharmacy or online from one of the major retailers. For more high-tech and/or expensive items, you may want to do some research before purchasing.
Talk to your pharmacy, physical or occupational therapist, or health care provider for recommendations.
To locate sources for assistive technology tools, contact local rehabilitation centers, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and universities connected to therapy programs having occupational, physical, and speech therapists who can help with where to buy equipment.
Paying for Aids and Equipment
Some government programs and other funding sources may help pay for some medical equipment. “Durable medical equipment” (DME) such as canes, walkers, wheelchairs, and scooters may qualify if prescribed by a physician or otherwise determined to be medically necessary. However, other independent living aids, like grab bars, bath mats, and dressing aids, are typically not covered.
The following funding sources and agencies may help with the purchase of certain kinds of aids:
- Centers for Independent Living (CIL) – Texas http://www.virtualcil.net/cils/
- Centers for Independent Living Directory – Other states
- Medicaid in your state, particularly waiver programs
- National Family Caregiver Support Program
- Private health insurance plans
- Public service organizations like United Way and Easter Seals
- Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) https://www.resna.org/About/Consumer-and-Public-Information State Technology Assistance Project has information about AT, financial assistance to buy equipment, and AT loan programs.
- Department of Veterans Affairs
Sources: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/rehabtech/conditioninfo/device and Family Caregiver Alliance in cooperation with California’s Caregiver Resource Centers and reviewed by Dory Sabata, OTD, OTR/L and Joan Augustyn, OTD, OTR/L.
We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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