BARCELONA • Phone makers are hearing the call of people who are worried about an elderly family member who lives alone.
They have upgraded the design of the smartphone to automatically alert users if their mother has stayed in bed all morning or suffered a fall.
Small sensors that monitor home activity and can send alerts to smartphones are marking it easier to keep an eye on seniors from a distance, helping them to live independently instead of going to a nursing home.
The products on display at the Mobile World Congress, the world's largest mobile phone fair in Barcelona, are part of a rapidly growing elderly care tech industry.
"For the past couple of years, the tech industry has become more interested in this area because they see an ageing population. Baby boomers represent a large market segment," said Ms Laurie Orlov, who began the Ageing in Place Technology Watch blog in 2008.
Sensors have also become cheaper, making their commercial use for home monitoring of seniors more viable, she added.
London-based start-up Voltaware's system uses a sensor installed in the home's main fuse box, which transmits data on electricity consumption via Wi-Fi to a cloud-based server where it is analysed.
If a senior does not get up in the morning and switch on the coffee machine as usual, the system detects the lack of activity and his carer is warned by text message.
The service is being offered on a trial basis by two electrical companies in Britain and one in Italy.
"With cameras, you would need several to see the whole picture, so it is expensive. Our stuff is very inexpensive because it's just one per household," said Voltaware chairman Sergey Ogorodnov.
Israeli 3D imaging company Vayyar presented a new sensor that uses radio waves to map where people are in a room. It can also tell if they are sitting, standing or lying down - and if they are breathing. If somebody stops breathing or has fallen, his caregiver is sent a text alert.
Only a single sensor placed in a central location is needed because it relies on radio waves, which can "see" through walls to detect what is happening in other rooms.
There have been concerns that home-monitoring systems can violate privacy, but sensor makers argue that in most cases, it is the elderly who request the system - and they can turn it off when they want.
Also, sensors do not record images like camera-based monitoring systems, so they are better suited to personal spaces such as bathrooms, said Vayyar director of marketing Malcolm Berman.
The need for tech products that help seniors stay at home longer is expected to grow sharply, given the world's ageing population.
Globally, the number of people aged 60 or more is predicted to more than triple to 3.1 billion by 2100, according to the United Nations.
Sensors may soon be used, too, to predict when a senior is about to fall.
Canadian start-up Aerial's patented system monitors human behaviour in a home by tracking disturbances to the Wi-Fi signal when a person moves.
The information is then made available on an app, allowing relatives to check if an elderly family member has got up, for example.
The company is working on a more advanced version that warns when a senior is at risk of falling by detecting sudden changes in his walking speed or gait.
"There is a strong desire to have seniors live at home as long as they can. Any type of independence they can maintain is great," said Aerial project manager Jon Druker.