By CATEY HILL
Bulky medic-alert pendants?> So last season. These days, makers of devices for older Americans are primping their product lines to attract boomers, who want to stay in their homes and stay in style as long as possible. But while some of these new gizmos hit the medical mark, critics say they have a long way to go on the fashion front.
For the millions of baby boomers who are still sporting faded jeans and leather jackets, a growing number of companies would like them to believe that yes, a good-looking medical personal emergency response bracelet can be quite the accessory. Ditto for the home-designers. Lifecomm, for example, recently introduced an updated mPERS -- the I've-fallen-and-I-can't-get-up device that transmits data via a cell phone signal with a "modern stylish look." Upscale home decor company Kohler recently launched an "aging in place" section on its website to feature such elegant items as the Elevance Rising Wall Tub and the Comfort Height toilets not to "enhance your bathroom's beauty and elegance." And now the National Association of Homebuilders now has an award to recognize design-savvy achievements in home modifications for aging seniors. "A lot of companies have started focusing more on style," says Jamie Goldberg, a National Kitchen & Bath Association-certified designer and certified aging-in-place specialist.
Over the next two decades, demand will only rise, these companies predict. That's when the 78 million baby boomers the first of whom turn 65 this year will need those shower bars and alert systems. Not surprisingly, most want to remain independent even once their health begins to falter. Three out of four people 45 and older have a "strong" desire to stay in their home for as long as possible, a 2010 AARP study found. What's more, boomers care more about style than their parents. "Baby boomers want to be contemporary, they don't want to be stigmatized as old," says Andrew Carle, the founding director of the senior housing administration program at George Mason University. Even so, one in three people over age 65 takes a significant fall each year.
But boomers may be sadly disappointed. Critics say most of these new products retain the drab utilitarian feel of the old ones. In spite of the technological sophistication of the new TabSafe pill dispensers, for example, they are still bulky (about the size of a breadbox) and stand out with their white plastic front. And while fall-alert devices have gotten smaller and slicker, many still broadcast that they're made for old people, Carle says. "Only a few have really gotten there yet from a style viewpoint," says Peter Radsliff, the board chairman of the Aging Technologies Alliance.
Where companies have made decent upgrades, fashionistas say, is to their "age friendly" products for the bathroom and kitchen, such as faucets with levers rather than knobs so they're easier to turn, non-slip bathroom floors made from granite or modern-looking tile, and spa-like shower benches for those who have troubles standing for long periods of time. Companies making these products have had a head start, since they've been "focused on style for years for regular customers," says Goldberg. "It's easier for them to bring updated looks to the aging-in-place category."
It used to be that grab bars, which provide support and balance for elderly while in the shower, were bulky and plastic. In other words, a neon sign reading "old person bathing here." But Great Grabz makes grab bars that are downright stylish, says Laurie Orlov, an industry analyst for Age in Place Tech. The bars come in a variety of different materials like stainless steel and bronze, as well as different sizes and styles, from streamlined to ornate. Most recently, the company added a new acrylic line with twenty different colors and designs in it, including a clear bar that contains a hint of sparkle and a spa-like bar that contains floating pebbles, and matching bath accessories." The bars range in price from about $250 to $390 each, which is on the high end (designer grab bars typically run between $50 and $200, says Goldberg). Also, while the new bars may be more stylish, they still draw attention in a bathroom, and there's no guarantee they'll completely match your existing fixtures.
Fall-alert devices have come a long way since the old "I've-fallen-and-I-can't get up" commercials aired in the 1990s. And that's good news for the aging boomer population who is going to need them, since falling is the most common cause of injury and hospital admission for trauma for those over 65. Wellcore is leading the way in this personal emergency response system arena, says Carle. Their PERS device is "sleek" and "the next generation of these things," he says. The rectangular device, roughly the size of an iPod, clips to the pocket of your pants or belt and sends an alert to caregivers and local emergency services if you fall, without you having to push a button (impossible if the fall has rendered you unconscious). The device also monitors activity levels so you can tell if your aging parent has taken significantly fewer steps recently, which can be a sign of declining health. The device costs $199.99 with a $49.99 monthly monitoring fee. The problem: It only works if you wear it, and many people with dementia or Alzheimer's won't remember to do that. Furthermore, the device, though you can cover it up with a shirt or belt, is far from invisible.
Kohler's "aging-in-place" product solutions
Kohler, maker of products for home interiors for 140 years, has recently focused its efforts on accessible products, including the Elevance Rising Wall Bath, a sleek, white bathtub with a wall that lowers to make it easier for older people to get in, and the Belay Tile-In Handrail, a nearly-invisible rail for balancing. The company also offers lever-handled faucets for the kitchen and bathroom, grab bars and handrails, adjustable-height toilets and more -- all in a variety of styles and finishes. A few minor upgrades to a bathroom doesn't cost a mint the average grab bar costs between $100 and $300 and the average toilet between $200 and $400 and you could redo your bathroom for as little as $1,000, says Nicole Allis, a product manager for Kohler. But if you want the higher-tech features like the Elevance tub it costs around $9,000 or plan to add dozens of new Kohler items, it can cost as much as $20,000, she says. Just don't add the upgrades to increase your home's resale value: Falling home prices have pushed the value of remodeling investments down four years straight, with individuals recouping just 62% of their bathroom renovation costs when they sell, according to the 22nd annual Cost vs. Value Remodeling Report.