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Choosing Assistive Technology

Assistive Technology—also called assistive devices, independent living aids, and adaptive equipment—can help your loved one live more independently. It may also make your job as a caregiver easier and more enjoyable.

Assistive technology (AT) can be as simple as a hearing aid or cane, or as sophisticated as a voice-activated computer system or mechanical hoist to lift and turn someone in bed. Assistive technology devices are basically helpful products that improve a person’s ability to live and function independently. Some AT is considered “low-tech”–canes, magnifiers and pill organizers–while “high tech” assistive devices include computer applications, sensors and smart phone systems.

AT is a rapidly growing area and is used by people with disabilities and older adults who want to stay in their communities and remain independent as long as possible. More than 15 million Americans with disabilities use some type of AT. In a 2003 AARP survey of persons over 50, one-third of people reported using AT in their daily activities. The top three most popular AT devices were:

  • Walker, cane or crutches
  • Aids for bathing or toileting
  • Wheelchair or scooter.

What kind of AT is right for your loved one?

The area of assistive technology has grown tremendously in recent years, and many manufacturers now provide a wide range of products and devices. It can be confusing, however, to determine which products might be right for your loved one. Here are a few basic tips to help you:

  • Focus on the actual tasks your loved one wants or needs to do when choosing devices. While this might seem obvious, it’s easy to get drawn into buying a product that looks good but doesn’t really address your loved one’s needs.
  • Generally, it is best to pick the simplest product available to meet the need. Simpler devices are often easier to use, less expensive, and 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 that can be filled by a caregiver 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 experts that provide care to your loved one, like rehabilitation specialists, physical and occupational therapists, or adult day care staff, about which type of technology might be best.
  • Ask other people with disabilities what products they have found to be helpful.
  • Ask to use the device on a trial basis to see if it is truly going to meet your loved one’s needs.

Ultimately, your loved one’s opinion about a certain piece of AT is the most important. The device needs to be comfortable, attractive, and simple to use.

Where can you buy AT?

With so many vendors and manufacturers producing AT, it can be confusing to decide which products to buy. There are a few public agencies which keep a complete list of AT products and manufacturers and can help you find the right products for your loved one. Because these agencies do not sell equipment, they are a more trustworthy source of information than contacting manufacturers directly.

In addition to national programs, every state and territory has a State Technology Assistance Project that has information about AT, financial assistance to buy equipment and AT loan programs. ABLEDATA can connect you with someone in your state, or you can contact the agency (RESNA) which oversees the State Technology Assistance projects. (See Resources for AT).

Paying for Aids and Equipment

Some government programs and other funding sources will help pay for some “durable medical equipment” such as canes, walkers, wheelchairs and scooters, 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 you purchase certain kinds of aids:

  • Medicare
  • Medicaid, particularly waiver programs
  • Private health insurance plans
  • Public service organizations like United Way and Easter Seals
  • National Family Caregiver Support Program
  • Department of Veterans Affairs

Excerpted from FCA’s fact sheet on Assistive Technology.