Gadgets, advancements simplify tasks to help make seniors more independent

Technology is not just for teens anymore. Increasingly, manufacturers are creating new technology that is either designed specifically for seniors or is a boon in particular to seniors.

Constant contact for emergencies

Verizon recently introduced Verizon SureResponse, a personal emergency response system targeted at seniors. The small black box with a big red button on it can be worn on a belt, a lanyard or with a wrist strap. In case of emergency, the user simply hits the button and a 24-hour emergency response service is called. Teams there ascertain the situation and make the appropriate calls, whether that’s to emergency personnel or someone on a preapproved call list, such as a family member.

It’s essentially an OnStar system for people.

“It’s simple, and it’s on you all the time,” said Verizon spokeswoman Jenny Weaver. “It’s something you can use wherever you go. It has a GPS, so you don’t need to explain to emergency responders how to get to you.”

The cost of SureResponse is comparable to a low-end cellphone, but the 24-hour response service and simplicity separate it from a basic cellphone.

Flashing safety lights in Sun City

All the homes in Sun City Summerlin have an emergency response system built into them. A switch near the front door activates a flashing light to which the Sun City Summerlin Security Patrol responds. At the time it was created, it seemed like a state-of-the-art idea, and although it may seem quaint and simplistic in the days of wireless connectivity and instant communication, it’s still a system that works and provides peace of mind and a sense of community to many of the residents.

A Sun City Summerlin Security Patrol dispatcher said that while they patrol the community keeping an eye out for the lights, it’s often a neighbor who sees the emergency signal first and calls dispatch. It allows neighbors to look out for one another from the safety of their homes for a minimal initial installation and upkeep.

Smart Living For seniors

Across the valley on Frenchman Mountain, Teri Lyn Vander Heiden has built what she calls the Senior Smart House, a site that incorporates many unique features designed to make life easier for seniors, particularly those like Vander Heiden who frequently use a wheelchair.

She began with basic ideas. The large home was built on one floor, without stairs. The one spot where building codes required a step up, the entrance from the garage, is fitted with a ramp.

The exterior doors swing out, making it easier to get out of the home in the event of a fire or other emergency. The interior doors are all pocket doors. They slide into a space inside the walls, making going through them in a wheelchair much easier. All of her doorways are at least 4 inches wider than her wheelchair.

“My front door has a remote-control lock and two-way glass, so I can see out but people can’t see in,” Vander Heiden said. “I also have two doors on the sides of the main door that are too narrow to walk through and have screens in them. That way I can leave them open and always have fresh air and ventilation, if I wanted, while maintaining security.”

In her kitchen she has a mix of simple ideas and high-tech gadgetry. Instead of cupboards she can’t reach from a wheelchair, she has open-topped drawers all below her countertops.

“It’s a lot easier for those of us who might not remember what’s behind a closed door,” Vander Heiden said.

Her dishwasher is small and pulls out like a drawer, allowing her to load it from her chair. Instead of a tall refrigerator with a freezer, they are two separate units, both built to fit underneath her countertops. Her sinks are operated with electric eyes, so she simply waves her hand in front of them to turn them on.

“I cook with a NuWave stove. I love it,” Vander Heiden said. “It doesn’t heat up the house. It heats up the pots with magnets. And it does it better and faster than a gas or electric stove.”

The NuWave oven works through induction, creating magnetic fields that warm steel or iron pots. There is no burner, just a painted circle indicating where the induction coils are beneath the smooth stovetop. There are no nooks and crannies under burners to clean.

Many of the lights in the home are operated by motion sensors. Vander Heiden intends to have them throughout the house eventually. She also has nightlight/flashlight combinations scattered throughout the home, which are also operated by motion sensors.

When I get up at night, these light my way. I don’t have to look for light switches,” Vander Heiden said. “If we have a power outage, they all have removable flashlights on them. I never have to go digging around in the dark looking for one.”

Instead of dressers, she dedicated a walk-in (or roll-in) closet with all her clothes on hangers or in open-faced drawers. She has a pantry just off the garage with open shelves spaced wide enough for her to easily roll her chair through. When she brings in groceries, most of them travel just a few feet from her car to her pantry.

The restroom faucets are also on motion sensors. The shower was designed without a lip or edge so she can roll in and using the many safety bars to transfer herself to a seat built into the shower.

The shower is made of KeraGlass, a material that can be formed in one piece without joints or tiles for easy cleaning.

Easy cleaning was the idea behind the smart home’s window treatments. Blinds sit between double panes of glass. The blinds are operated with hardware outside the door, so dust doesn’t get in to gather on them.

“I have a bunch of Summit appliances in here, including my combination washer/dryer,” Vander Heiden said. “They don’t sell them many places in the valley, and they really make things easier and simpler.”

Her washer/dryer is the same size or even smaller than the average washing machine, but it does both functions, removing the necessity of transferring heavy, wet clothes from the washer to the dryer.

Vander Heiden admits that many of the features she has built into her new home are more expensive than traditional appliances, but she built it hoping it would be an example of how a home can make a senior’s life easier.

“I have people up here as often as I can to let them see what can be done,” she said. “Everyone who has seen it has just been thrilled.”

Her hopes for the next step in building the senior home of the future involve her iPad. She wants to install cameras and set up remote operating systems so she can run the whole house from anywhere in the world, adjusting lights, temperature and anything else she can think of.

As far as emergency response, Vander Heiden relies on her smartphone, which she has modified to have a one-push button to call 911. She keeps it handy at all times with a piece of old school technology — a knitted pouch she wears as a necklace.

For more information on Verizon SureResponse, visit For more on the Senior Smart House, visit

Contact Sunrise/Whitney View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at or 702-380-4532.

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