McKeesport, Pa., a river town just outside of Pittsburgh, appears to be dying.

Without the economic underpinning of the local steel mill, which shut down in the mid-1980s, shops along the main drag are shuttered,
apartment buildings are abandoned, and wooden porches are rotting off the fronts of condemned homes a century old.

These decrepit neighborhoods hardly seem a fertile market for custom install.

Local integrators, however, tell a visitor to look closer: There’s a hidden population in McKeesport that’s not only open to the latest home automation products, but needs them now.

McKeesport is part of Allegheny County, identified by the U.S. Census Bureau as the county with the second-largest population of senior citizens in the nation, behind only Dade County, Fla. So many elderly townspeople now require some sort of assisted living situation that impromptu “old folks’ homes” have been set up all over McKeesport. The local hotel, a Sheraton, shut down and then reopened as the Senior Care Plaza.

This year alone, 100 ramshackle homes will be demolished, leaving even more seniors in need of shelter and dreading the idea of losing their independence.

LIVING WITH AMY

On a quiet street just two blocks uphill from the handful of open businesses and a post office that still constitutes “downtown,” engineering professor Robert Walters opens the door of a low-budget but highly-wired new “cottage.”

He’s showing off a model smarthome, the brainchild of Blueroof Technologies, his non-profit research organization, and Blueroof Solutions, a building company he helped found to provide a high-tech alternative to senior warehousing in western Pennsylvania.

The Blueroof cottage has a wide, wheelchair-accessible, white picket porch and a Panasonic webcam aimed right at the front door. As the door swings open, a young yet authoritative woman’s voice sounds throughout the house, “Front door…open!”

“We call her Amy,” says Walters. “She sounds pretty cold, I know, but we’re working on a voice that’ll be more of a companion. We should have that ready by early next year.”

Amy’s around to make definitive declarations about windows, the freezer door, the stove burners and so on. If the shower water runs a little too long, Amy’s there to say so, and a group of sensors will back her up by eventually turning the water off automatically.

Some Blueroof cottage features may seem a little Big Brother (or Sister, in this case), but these specific automation technologies have been designed to meet the particular needs of older adults, as well as those with disabilities. Manufacturers call these particular technologies “universal design” and anticipate a growing market for these targeted products in coming years. By 2030, one in five Americans—some 72 million people—who are expected to be both healthier and wealthier than the current generations of older adults will have passed their 65th birthdays. That’s double the national population of senior citizens right now.

“We see these seniors as customers,” says Walters. “It may not be a giant market right now, but it’s going to be. We believe we’re the missionaries, getting to that market and proving it’s cost-effective.”

RESCUING THE NEST EGG

Walters and the Blueroof team aren’t the only ones eyeing the senior dollar. Home automation manufacturers are now watching the greying of their dealers’ clientele and beginning to formulate marketing materials aimed at that specific target.

“We’re telling dealers, ‘This is something you can tackle,’” says Eric Smith, chief technology officer of home automation vendor Control4. “So many people are looking for help in caring for their older relatives. I know my wife’s grandmother got to a point where she was forgetting to do things, but she didn’t want to go to assisted living yet. This was a while back, but if I had known then that we could put sensors in her home that reported things like when she didn’t turn her lights off in her bedroom at night or something, we might have felt comfortable leaving her in her home for another couple of years.”

Smith’s firsthand experience is similar to those of millions of families right now who are hunting for financial alternatives to nursing homes or assisted living communities, which typically charge a $20,000-to-$30,000 entrance fee and then upwards of $4,000 per month in rent. Bills like that are a quick way to deplete a life’s savings.

By comparison, Blueroof Solutions charges about $100,000 to build a one-floor home complete with automation.

Putting off the move to an institution even for a couple of years, either by buying such a “smart-cottage” or retrofitting an existing home with assistive technologies, not only could save a family money, but also could turn the home itself into a more valuable asset.

“People are happier at home too,” says Jodi Forlizzi, a professor of design and human computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University who’s been researching elder technology for the last seven years. “Everyone’s living so long now that we have the ‘young old’ and the ‘old old.’ It’s entirely possible to have a 70-year-old who’s taking care of their 90-year-old parents. This is a real change for society, and I think the consumer market will catch up to these changes in demographics.”

Contrary to popular opinion, says Forlizzi, older adults are really not technology-averse. In fact, she says, in study after study, senior citizens have been enthusiastic about anything that keeps them engaged socially. They want cellphones, computers and internet connections to stay in touch with their friends, children and grandchildren.

This desire to stay connected will especially be true, Forlizzi says, as tech-savvy baby boomers—the first of whom reached their 60th birthdays this year—begin to hit their latter years.

The challenge, then, is not getting seniors interested in technology. Rather, it’s developing user interfaces that take into account users’ decreased physical abilities. Computers or touchscreens for the elder market must have legible displays, easy-type keypads and buttons that are easy to press. “People are concerned aesthetically as well,” adds Forlizzi. “They are discriminating and they want functional products that don’t take up too much space.”

THE FUTURE-FIT

At the McKeesport smart-cottage, the Blueroof team has implemented three “levels” of automation technologies: security, sensorizing and medical monitoring. “More than anything, we want to keep people safe,” says Walters. “Most security systems out there are reactive. We’re trying to be proactive.”

The Blueroom team has worked closely with two vendors familiar to the custom industry—Leviton and Home Automation Inc. (HAI)—along with Comcast to develop an extremely easy-to-use home system which is completely IP-addressible. Leviton’s “structured media center” and whole-house surge protector provide the infrastructure for the two-bedroom home, which has 24 internet ports, 12 cable connections and nearly two dozen sensors, as well as wireless capability.

The internet component is key, says Walters. For example, if the sensors beneath the living room couch cushions, around the medicine cabinet and in the refrigerator door all indicate that there’s been no activity in the home after 11 a.m., the system will send an e-mail notification to a designated family member or caregiver. The system also allows caregivers to monitor and change the home’s lighting, security or thermostat settings from any mobile device.

“First, we try to understand quality of life for a person,” says Walters, “and then we try to assist, predict and aid. In our third level, medical monitoring, we factor in things like blood pressure. So if someone’s blood pressure is on the rise over a few days and meanwhile the motion sensors suggest they are becoming very tired and not doing as much, that could indicate this person is at risk for cardiac arrest, and someone can step in at that point and help.”

Walters says elder adults he’s observed in McKeesport generally don’t like to actually wear devices (so much for the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” pendant model). They’re much happier with easily accessible one-button devices, he says, such as controls that would enable them to turn out lights or check the home’s security cameras from bed.

Most C-businesses can easily meet requests like that, says Andrew Wiatrak, owner of Sensation Design Group in Minneapolis. “I programmed a house for a handicapped person with motion sensors around the house tied into Crestron controls,” he says. “We set up a lighting system so that as the wheelchair was moving down the hallway, it would pop on a light. You can run some timers, and if you don’t see any activity for a while, you can send messages.”

Jana Alvino, a marketing manager for Leviton, says demand for universal design is increasing as customers try to future-fit their homes. “People are installing these types of products in their homes now, thinking about their own aging,” she says. “The retiree market is building homes they want to get old in. They’re looking for easy light switches and plumbing fixtures, emergency locator switches and electronic timers that you can pre-set to control things like an exhaust fan. Actually, many of these products are great for families with children too.”

Dealers wishing to get in on the senior market, vendors suggest, should consider MDUs (multiple dwelling units), new construction (talking with builders about marketing assistive technologies) and retrofitting.

“Don’t overlook simple things,” says Control4’s Smith. “If I were a dealer, I’d take a security panel and tie it into a home theater controller, and then I’d put some motion sensors around the house. I’d put in some lighting control products and maybe a keyfob that people could use as a panic button. The whole system, all retrofittable, could be done for $3,200.

“But hey, while you’re at it, talk them into an entertainment system and let ’em have more fun at home too!

“I think this is a very big opportunity.” CR