Elder tech and Coronavirus: Tech to connect with quarantined elders


How can we make sure that social isolation doesn’t harm our seniors? Can “elder tech” help us?

Right now we’re under lockdown across much of the world. We can’t visit our parents or grandparents, who often need our help and often feel lonely, because that would endanger them. In this episode of TechFirst, we talk to photographer George Krieger, who built an incredible technology set-up to make communication with his dad in a care home.

The upshot: elder tech can be a life saver.

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Full transcript: Elder tech to keep quarantined seniors connected

John Koetsier:  How can we make sure that social isolation doesn’t harm our seniors? 

Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. We’re in lockdown right now. In fact, much of the world is in lockdown and for seniors that can be particularly scary and lonely. Seniors are often lonely at the best of times, and now visiting them is actually dangerous.

So we look for technology for ways to connect us: elder tech. With us today to discuss how to make that happen is a friend of mine, his name is George Krieger. He’s a photographer and a technologist. George, welcome! 

George Krieger: Thank you. 

John Koetsier: Really appreciate you taking some time here. I mean, I’ve had the privilege of watching you over the past few months on social media where you’ve had to set up something for your dad before this whole coronavirus thing. Can you talk a little bit about that situation and what you did? 

George Krieger: Yeah. Back, this is about a month ago when I was moving my dad from one nursing home to another, we decided that we were going to put in a link for me to control the laptop in his room. And I’ve been doing this at the hospitals and nursing homes previously, it’s nothing new for us but we wanted to just keep him a little bit better controlled, a little bit better connection because he finally had a private room. 

And this whole Coronavirus thing was just starting, they were starting to lock down places because the nursing home in Washington had actually occurred while we were moving him. So we knew that this was coming and I wanted a little bit higher level of control and ability to communicate with him because right now as it stands he doesn’t really go out of his room except for once a day for a therapy visit. And then everybody who comes in his room is not only the same people, one or two people all week, but they’re always wearing masks, gowns, full PPE or protective equipment. So they don’t look like people, you know, they’re kind of an entity coming in, in a costume, doing these things and trying to protect you from it. They’re not as … it’s not normal. So it’s scary for the people who are there because they’re not only restricted, as in nobody can come visit them at the nursing home, but they can’t play bingo, they can’t go eat together in a community setting, they can’t see the entertainment that usually comes to the facility, their activity levels are way down. It’s really sad because it’s more than just loneliness, it actually starts to get into a mental health problem. 

John Koetsier: Absolutely. I can totally see that. So you set up a pretty sophisticated set up for your dad. I mean you put in a, I believe you put in a laptop, I think you put in a camera, you also put in some way of managing that technology remotely. Is that correct? 

George Krieger: Yes. Because this is not a business, this is our family trying to communicate, we can use the personal version of real VNC or virtual network computing. It’s a remote desktop that allows you to remotely control, login and control a laptop or computer that’s online. Besides that, it doesn’t require any special networking or a technology to do. So the laptop there is on a wireless connection, it’s a good one, but it’s a wireless connection and it’s just logged into wireless. Because I have real VNC on this computer and that one, I can bring up his computer and log into it at any time. Therefore I can control it. We did a little bit of additional though. I brought in a 50 inch TV on a stand because the TV that was in there was too small and didn’t have the right jacks for what we wanted to do, and put a connection from the mini display port across the  room to the TV, so now I can control the laptop and my dad can make the laptop show on the TV.

John Koetsier: Wonderful. 

George Krieger: We put the little camera on top of the TV, pointing down at his easy reclining chair, and so he can sit in front of his TV and have a video conference. And I can control everything from here, so the laptop’s on a desk behind him and he doesn’t even have to do anything. 

John Koetsier: That’s amazing. That’s wonderful. I mean, I know I’m the tech person for my family, right? So I’ve installed stuff for my mother who’s 84 and then I get home and then, ‘oh, this doesn’t work on the iPad.’ And I know it works, but it’s not working, right? The right buttons are not being pressed or whatever the case might be. And having that remote control capability is critical. 

George Krieger: It’s more than critical. It allows the person that’s having the problem, or the person who doesn’t know how to do this stuff as well, it makes them feel a lot more comfortable that they’re going to be able to succeed, they’re going to be able to communicate, and that you’re right there with them to help them where you can move their mouse, when you can change what’s going on and fix what the problem is on their end from your end. It’s so comforting, I mean, yeah. 

John Koetsier: That’s amazing. That’s really amazing because there is that fear factor and I’m going to ask you a little bit, and I’m going to isolate you on the camera here, but I’m going to ask you a little bit about your dad because your dad is not nontechnical, right? And I’m going to isolate you so you can show what’s besides you there ’cause we talked about that in the prep for this show. Your dad worked for Iomega, your dad was an engineer. Can you talk about that real brief? 

George Krieger: My dad was actually in charge of the research and development department for Iomega. Previously he was in charge of manufacturing engineering for both Xerox and VersaTech and then Iomega. He moved up into research and development and was then tasked to build a team to build a new disk drive. And that new disk drive was the zip drive, and this is  … here’s one of his things here. This is one of his plaques that they gave him on his retirement in 2000 because he manufactured the early stuff from Iomega, the Bernoulli disks up here, they’re the old government backup drives. And he has a patent on these Floptical disks which was a different thing … oh, I’m so sorry, did I not turn my phone off? I did not. Okay. Sorry about that. 

John Koetsier: That’s okay. Did I hear you say the word floptical drive? 

George Krieger: Floptical drives. Yes. Do you remember MO technology, MO drive technology? 

John Koetsier: Sir, I do not.

George Krieger: This is a Magneto-Optical disk. In other words, it’s a floppy disk that used to hold 1.44 megabytes of technology on it, or data on it, and the technology to use optical tracking on a magnetic media was developed by a company called Imation if I remember correctly. And there was a problem with the manufacturing on that, because to do that they had to laser burn a tiny dash in the disk around in circles. So they had a scanning technology that could pick up where the tracking was at the head. So once you do that you can put on 21 megabytes on a floppy disk. So this particular situation turned into… because I actually have a picture of this. This is a lightsaber device, this is the thing that burned those disks. Let’s try and get this better with the camera.

John Koetsier: Wow, wow.

George Krieger: Ahhh my microphone. This is what burned the dashes into the disks, and it’s one of the patents that my dad has, is on a process to remove the dust from the disk after the laser burned the dash in it, because the dust that was left on those disks kept messing up all the heads after a while. 

John Koetsier: Well, that is just amazing. And I brought that up because I wanted to highlight that it’s not just a nontechnical senior who might have issues, but because of physical implications, maybe because of eyesight, maybe even hand-eye coordination, other issues that happen to all of us when we get old, whether we were technical or not, having that ability to control it remotely is really, really critical. And your dad obviously was a pretty amazing gentleman who was an engineer and understood a lot of that stuff and built a lot of technology, some of the tech … I used zip drives, back in the day. 

George Krieger: Yeah. 

John Koetsier: And I’ve never heard of a Floptical disk, so that’s cool. Maybe to get back to what we’re talking about here. 

George Krieger: Yeah, sorry about that.

John Koetsier:  No, that’s fine, that was perfect, I invited that. You also gave your dad a wearable piece of technology. Can you talk about that a little bit and what that does?

George Krieger: Yes. This year at CES there [were] several products that came out that were really designed and focused on connecting seniors in nursing homes and kind of an activity tracker for old people. But it’s a little bit better than that. This one is from a company called CarePredict and the device is called a Tempo. It’s a wrist worn device, it’s like a wristwatch but it doesn’t have the time or a display on it or anything. It’s basically just a wrist device that has some sensors on the back against your skin and on top of it is a button and some LED lights. The button can be pushed for three or four seconds and it actually sends an alert to me.

John Koetsier: Oh wow.

George Krieger: And on my phone and pops up on my app, and it tells me that there’s an alert, I need to help him in some way. So once I get that I can call him back through the wifi the watch is connected to and speak directly to him, and he can hear me and he can talk back to the watch. Sort of like a Dick Tracy spy watch at that point. But also included in this are some sensors against his skin that monitor his heartbeat and it also monitors the room temperature, and there has a fall detection sensor inside of it. There’s some other things in there, I think they’re working on more features, but currently these are the ones that work. And right now he’s not getting up that much to have a fall detection would be useful, but for most elderly people and even him when he’s transferring from a wheelchair to his bed or something like that if he falls, these falls detection units are very important because whether they have somebody around or not, you want to know if the elderly person fell.

John Koetsier: Yes.

George Krieger: So communication can be more than just talking to somebody, seeing somebody, knowing their activity levels, what their heartbeat is when they took the reading last. Things like that are very important for peace of mind. 

John Koetsier: Yeah, yeah. 

George Krieger: One of the problems I’ve had with this, nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities and hospitals with my dad being in them, is when I’m not there it’s hard to understand what might be happening or how he’s doing. And so I want to go back, right? I want to be there and so the watch helps me keep a communication with him that I wouldn’t normally have, even through a remote desktop or a camera or anything like that. It gives me the peace of mind that if he wants me, needs me, he can push a button. He doesn’t have to be able to dial his phone. He doesn’t have to be able to find his phone and he can just push this button and it makes like an alert, audible alert there and lets him know that the signal went out to me and a few minutes later I can call him back. 

John Koetsier: That’s amazing. That’s really amazing. And it’s a great segue because what I wanted to talk about next is you’ve installed this technology, you’ve got the wearable there. What’s that meant for your family? What’s that meant for your mother perhaps, you, your siblings, others that want to know that your dad is okay? 

George Krieger: Yeah, that’s very important. I can explain it best by comparing it to times just previous in our own past year. A few months ago when he was, last year actually, when he was in a skilled nursing center here in town, we had phone communication. I had remote desktop communication with his laptop when it was opened up and turned on, but that’s it. And he was 15 minutes away from my house. I still went over there every single day, and usually just to make sure everything was going alright, called him a couple of times a day. Now he’s over an hour and a half away. 

John Koetsier: Wow. 

George Krieger: I don’t, I’m not allowed to go visit now, but when I was able to I didn’t need to keep tabs on him as much. I didn’t need to be in communication, or it felt I needed to be there every single day. I felt like I could stay at home for a few days, I could do this and that. I wasn’t really as concerned because he could anytime he could push a button and call me, not just when he was able to. And with elderly people who have dementia … my dad has stroke problems, he doesn’t have dementia which is nice, but most elderly do have some form of dementia or problems with memory and things like that. That makes some of these things like using a computer, using even a simple smartphone or cell phone or flip phone, a little bit more difficult than it is for you or me. So for them to be able to just push a button and know that I can call them back in a few minutes and talk to them is, it makes me feel like I don’t have to be there every second. And it makes him feel that he has communication with me when he needs it, even if he can’t get to his phone. 

John Koetsier: Wonderful, wonderful. Let’s talk about other technologies. Obviously you set up some really sophisticated things there. Have you heard of, did you think of maybe setting up something like a Facebook Portal or an Echo Show or something like that?

George Krieger: There is an Amazon Echo Show there. 

John Koetsier: Okay.

George Krieger: We actually use the Echo, whoops sorry about that … we actually use the Echo show right now for more than just communication, and that’s why it’s not our primary communication device. It will work as that, it’s very good at that as well, but the primary use of the Alexa in his room is for speech therapy. When you have stroke patients, there’s a process called neuro-plasticity feedback that teaches the brain things again, and speech is connected to swallowing. And because strokes affect your swallowing it’s actually, and your speech, it’s actually the same thing and it can be fixed the same way. Proper speech to Alexa is essential in making her work, and if you do it right it works, and if you don’t say it right, it doesn’t. Alexa’s got a wide understanding level and dialect level, so it works very well even if you slur your speech, you can learn how to speak to it properly by slowing down, using spacing, and controlling the muscular controlling your mouth. Well, that’s what helps you swallow. 

John Koetsier: Wow. 

George Krieger: So we’ve been able to bring help my dad back from dysphasia and aphasia with Alexa as a speech therapy device. And we do use it for communication too, you use the drop in or the calling features. And he knows that if he’s like on the floor or something like that at home, before he went to the nursing homes, he could just tell Alexa to dial, and I’m not going to say the three numbers ’cause if my Alexa heard me it would be going off here. I have muted that. So yeah … those devices are essential. The Facebook Portal I think might actually have an edge on some of the others with this because if I’m correct, it has the Amazon Alexa built into it and it’s more of a direct communications device than the Alexa has become. For some reason or another, Amazon hasn’t really pursued the communications end of things as well as they have the speech and AI end of it. So Facebook kind of adds that layer of communication onto it I think in a very, very decent way. 

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. It’s funny, I just put up this comment here from Abram Taylor about his mom who’s in a home and having a tough time and using FaceTime. And I’ve done that with my mom as well, but I found in some cases that it’s not foolproof, for instance her initiating it is a challenge but also sometimes even accepting a call is a challenge as well. 

George Krieger: Well one of the great things the nursing homes around the Silicon Valley area at least, the two that I’ve dealt with personally have offered to provide FaceTime conferences for people and their parents in the room. So they’re using their own personal phones and an account for the facility and they’re logging in and doing a FaceTime with people at home with the elderly person in their room, which is nice because they’ve got some people that are helping them do the technology right. So it takes that element out of it and makes it work. 

John Koetsier: Yes. It’s interesting we have a comment as well from somebody of what tools are missing, or what you wish existed. Is there something that you wish existed that doesn’t exist right now?

George Krieger: It exists. Everything we want to use and do these things exist somewhere, trust me. Production has been using live streaming technologies and NDI streams and things like that for a very long time. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just because it’s not that consumer friendly right now. The consumer friendly stuff is all coming to game streaming and Twitch and the kids that are doing it these days, and these FaceTime and other personal communication things. But when you get down to the technology that’s available for like a room in a senior home or something, there’s very limited things you can do in a commercial basis. What is available is in enterprise conference rooms, we have remote rooms that you control from the host software. So I can actually control the whole room remotely including the camera, whether they log in, whether they answer, you know, I can make the room join the meeting and whoever’s in the room happens to be there. 

John Koetsier: Yep.

George Krieger: And that type of system would be very beneficial for nursing homes to actually install themselves. Have control over and then give you a login so that you could have control of your patient’s room. As an advocate and as a family member, I would want that. And I know my patient, my dad, would love for me to have that type of command and control for him. 

John Koetsier: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I can see that coming standard in better care homes and perhaps even hospitals at some point in the future. As the technology, you’re right is out there, it’s available, it’s accessible. It’s just maybe not as user friendly, it’s maybe not as integrated, it’s maybe not as inexpensive as it needs to be, but it’s all coming there. 

George Krieger: I think that one of the important things is like I was saying with Alexas actually being used here as therapy, and the touchscreen also that could be neuro-plasticity feedback with touchscreen gaming, right? If those were placed in skilled nursing facilities and nursing homes across the United States it would change the game, because one, you could connect them to all the lights in the room. 

John Koetsier: Yep. 

George Krieger: The temperature in the room, connect them to the nursing station, connect them to therapy, do speech therapy through the device. You don’t even have to have someone go to the room anymore, which in this environment is beautiful. These little boxes with screens have a screen and the video conferencing built into them like this is, it’s a game changer for medicine but they haven’t really adapted to it yet. 

John Koetsier: And the data systems around that right? Because you were talking about the peace of mind that you have because you know that your dad is moving around, he hasn’t fallen, you’ve got the wearable, you got the data from that, you can see what his heart rate is, other things like that. If we had a data collection system that was centralized, people who run a care home or a hospital, or whatever else could have peace of mind with good data collection and analysis functionalities that, hey, our patients are good, they’re ambulatory, they haven’t fallen, other things like that, and know where to send resources when they’re needed right?

George Krieger: Right. It’s so important that the whole, what connects us, people gripe about privacy and social networking, is kind of what we need to help our elders right now. We get a little mad when things track us and provide advertising that may be something that we were conversing about online with somebody. Well, that can be a huge benefit to people who have memory problems, to people who have communication problems because they don’t have enough opportunity to communicate or they can’t find the voice for the words in their mind. These kind of technologies that we’ve developed to use for marketing and advertising and staying connected could actually help seniors with a little bit of AI added to them in being able to adapt to a life where they can’t operate these things, like you were saying. Technology gets more difficult as we get older, not because the technology is not understood, but just because our minds were never taught how to understand and perceive that point of view. And so we look at things from a different point of view, we can’t understand how it works until we’re into it and somebody had to get us into it. 

John Koetsier: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Interesting. I just see a comment from somebody, ‘Why not use the Apple watch?’ And I use the Apple watch myself, but it’s designed as a personal tool. It doesn’t have sort of a management level interface where you can see somebody’s data. Apple would have to design that or enable that, I assume, for it to work the same way.

George Krieger: Yeah. And with these wrist worn devices like the Tempo from CarePredict that I’m using, they’re things that the Apple watch could do, but it’s not. And because of Apple’s control over what types of apps can be used on their devices and the fact that they have an ecosystem that is limited, it’s not a  good idea to develop on these type of platforms because you’re limiting the number of people who can use it, and quite frankly most development comes from the users, not from the developers. The developers have the original concept or idea that works and then the users direct where the development goes and how that product is going to serve its best purposes usually. That’s happening with this device right now. Some of the recommendations that I made a few weeks ago are starting to be implemented in their development.

John Koetsier: Nice.

George Krieger: Because they make sense and this is a new product and they’re still learning what this device that they’ve created is capable of doing, and what the people who are using it want it to do and need it to do. That’s part of this whole development process that we do these days. It used to be a company made a product for a purpose, and that’s what you used it for. But now a company makes a product for a desired purpose or demonstrated purpose and we find fifteen other ways of using it, and one of those ways becomes the way that we all use it. 

John Koetsier: Yes, yes.

George Krieger: Drones. Drones are the best example of that in recent memory that I had anything to do with as well, because when drones first came out it was a cute, fun thing and we could lift a camera and it was shaky pictures, something like that with it. But now they’re using them as cinematic jibs and everything. 

John Koetsier: Absolutely.

George Krieger: It’s incredible what we can do with a drone and how it can self protect itself. All this stuff and it came out of something that we only had three or four minutes of airtime in the original days that we had to spend an hour working on. So we could fly it for those three or four minutes. It was horrible you know, but now it’s a completely different thing and that was driven by the users, not by the developers. 

John Koetsier: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Last question, now I’m seeing what you’ve built and how it works, and what your dad uses and all those other things, what would you change? How would you build it differently if you had to do it all over from scratch? 

George Krieger: There’s basically only one different, one or two things I would do differently. Right now we have one laptop that runs everything in the room. Little convenient but it’s also there’s no redundancy. And now that I can’t go there if something went wrong and there’s no redundancy … hope he can fix it, yeah right. So, I would put what I have sitting right here, matter of fact, is a little minicomputer. These are about $300, you can buy a Windows mini computer with a good Intel graphics chip inside of it that will run 4K on two screens at 60 frames. It’s got 8 gig of RAM in it and 256 gig SSD. So it’s got enough stuff to run a TV and that’s what I would do is screw it on the back of the TV, plug it into there as one of the inputs and have control of two separate things instead of one. And then I would also probably upgrade and have gotten an enterprise control system so that I could have remote hardware control from the other end point and done it that way. But considering we had three days from the time he got a private room until the day they were going to lock down, they ended up locking down the facility, we did a pretty good job with what we had. I was lucky to actually have all the wiring and everything I needed to do it. 

I had to go down to Home Depot and buy a whole new AC wiring grid to wire everything because they wanted specific things in the plug strips to make it legal for their equipment there. And every piece of medical equipment has to be plugged directly into the wall and not into a plug strip or something of that nature. So there’s regulations and rules. You have to talk to your nursing home manager, the facilities manager, and the IT person if you want to do things like we’re doing here.

John Koetsier: Wow.

George Krieger: If they don’t know about them then they might shut them down or say it’s a rogue network on their thing. I was not allowed to put in Alexa’s Philips Hue bulbs, because the Hue hub would have required a rogue network to work properly and so that’s not allowed. So I was able to put in plug controllers at the plug of the floor lamp and that way control the whole lamp of the plug instead of the bulbs, because the bulbs are a rogue network and they won’t be allowed …

John Koetsier: You and your rogue networks, wow. 

George Krieger: I am the rogue network. 

John Koetsier: George, I want to thank you for taking this time. It’s been fascinating listening to you and wow, you’re a good son.  It’s impressive to see from a distance and it’s impressive to see what you’ve done. Thank you for your time here. 

George Krieger: Thank you very much. I appreciate it, John. 

John Koetsier: For everybody else. Thank you for joining us on TechFirst.  My name is John Koetsier. Please like, subscribe, share, comment, love to see that, all of the above. If you’re on the podcast afterwards and you like this, please rate it, review it, that would be a massive help.

Thanks so much. Until next time, this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.