If you’re caring for a loved one, you may have heard a doctor or therapist recommend assistive technology for day-to-day activities. Assistive technology devices, also called adaptive devices, can make a world of difference for both you as a caregiver and for the individual in managing daily life. Popular “low-tech” devices include walkers, bathing aids, and wheelchairs. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, the field of assistive technology has grown a lot in recent years, and there is a broad range of products and services. Here’s some basic information to help you navigate the assistive technology (AT) landscape.

What is assistive technology?

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging, assistive technology is any service or tool that helps people with daily routines that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. Assistive technology devices cover a broad spectrum, from simple magnifying glasses to complex remote home monitoring systems. Some assistive technology is considered “low-tech,” such as canes or pill organizers, while others are “high-tech,” like computer applications and smartphones. In general, assistive technology is anything that helps people continue to participate in daily activities.

AbleData is a federally-funded organization that helps people find information on assistive technology and connects them with manufacturers and vendors. According to AbleData, the following are a few examples of assistive technology devices that address common caregiving concerns:

  • Bathing assistance can be challenging for caregivers, and bath lifts that attach to the wall or bathtub or chairs for the tub may be helpful.
  • Memory aids can help people complete tasks when they have trouble remembering, and newer technology like iPad applications can prompt them to finish tasks and show them how.
  • Medication reminders are a type of memory aid that can help people take their medications, and can include electronic pillboxes and medication reminder systems.
  • Home and remote safety monitoring can help caregivers make sure their loved ones are safe alone at home. For example, remote alert systems can notify the system provider that a person has fallen or needs help; the system provider can dispatch an ambulance.

 How do I know which assistive technology devices are right for my loved one or me?

There are many assistive technology devices available, and it’s a good idea to start with a few basic questions:

  • What is the actual task you want to accomplish? This question may seem basic, but if your objective is to enable your loved one to control his television independently, a programmable large-button remote might meet your goals better than a software application or other high-tech solution.
  • What is the simplest solution to the problem? In the AT world, there are many multi-featured, sophisticated assistive technology devices with lots of capabilities, but in most cases, the simplest product is the best. For example, if your loved one can remember to take her medication every morning and every evening, but gets confused about which ones to take, a basic pill organizer you can fill each week solves the problem. On the other hand, a person with more cognitive difficulty might need an automated pill dispenser with alarms to maintain a medication schedule.
  • Is there an advanced device that might meet more than one need? Technology can be remarkably efficient, especially when it comes to adaptive devices and mobile technology. A tablet or modified smartphone with the appropriate applications, for example, can play music to help soothe an upset person, connect the person to a caregiver or health-care provider via telephone or video conference, and control light switches, thermostats, and televisions.

It’s a good idea to ask your doctor or therapist for recommendations about assistive technology devices and equipment and to consult other caregivers before making a purchase. In some cases, depending on the device, the manufacturer may offer a trial or preview period after which you can return the device for a refund or credit if it is not meeting your objectives at home.

Does Medicare cover assistive technology devices?

Medicare Part B (medical insurance) covers 80% of allowable expenses for durable medical equipment, or DME, that is medically necessary and prescribed by your doctor for use at home. You will need to pay 20% of the Medicare-approved amount, and please note that the Part B deductible applies. Assistive technology devices may fall into the category of DME. Depending on the equipment, you many need to rent or buy it.  Please note that you may need to get your DME from a Medicare-approved supplier in order for Medicare to cover it.

The durable medical equipment (DME) that Medicare covers include, but is not limited to:

  • Canes (except for white canes for the blind, which aren’t covered)
  • Crutches
  • Commode chairs
  • Manual wheelchairs and power mobility devices (power wheelchairs are covered only when medically necessary)
  • Walkers

Typically, independent living aids like grab bars or bath mats are not covered. You can always ask your health-care provider or call Medicare at 1-800-MEDICARE (1- 800-633-4227) (TTY users 1-877-486-2048), 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to see if a particular device is covered. To read more about Medicare’s coverage of durable medical equipment, please visit this page on Medicare.gov.

If your loved one has a Medicare Advantage plan, please note that it must cover the same items and services as Original Medicare (Medicare Part A and B). A Medicare Advantage plan is an alternative way to receive your Original Medicare benefits (except for hospice care, which Part A will still provide). In the case of Medicare Advantage plans, your costs for durable medical equipment or assistive technology devices will depend on the plan you have and may be lower than Original Medicare costs. Be sure to call the plan to find out if the equipment or device is covered and how much you’ll pay.

How can I get help paying for assistive devices?

There may be other programs to help pay for some of the costs associated with assistive technology devices, including: