Why you should care

Because why shouldn’t our grandparents get a flight to remember, even if they’re in hospice care?

Part of a weeklong series on aging boomers, or what we like to call the golden oldies.

Cosmo Iovine was flying across Fairport Harbor, zooming toward the clouds, then diving down to earth. Below, the landscape was a blanket of green and blue, dotted with tiny sailboats, and he passed over the steeple on St Mary’s church, where he’d prayed for half a century. But the 90-year-old wasn’t in a helicopter or plane. He was flying from the comfort of his hospice bed. His craft? A drone. “It brought tears to my eyes,” says Susan Melaragno, Iovine’s eldest daughter, who held her father’s hands during the experience. “There were so many memories of when we were little.”

Drones are often seen as the villains of the sky — criticized for being agents of war or backyard invaders of privacy. But there’s also been a lot of discussion about their potential for areas such as agriculture and foreign aid. One of the latest twists: serving seniors. Some researchers are looking into deploying drones to help retrieve medication from a different room. Then there’s Ohio-based engineer Tom Davis, who’s bringing drones into certain hospice communities as part of a new outreach program for seniors. And tinkerers like him see plenty of potential to help people here: Over 1.7 million people received hospice care in 2014, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, which typically focuses on caring for — not curing — people with long-term illness. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of hospices in America rose by more than 18 percent, with the majority of residents being seniors. Among many, there’s an expectation that this is where their lives will come to an end.

Indeed, when Davis was running Aerial Anthropology, a cinematography company, he witnessed loved ones struggling with serious health problems and realized how disconnected some patients felt when trapped in a bed. What if he could use his drones to live-stream certain settings, he thought, where real-time video footage could play on sites such as YouTube and let patients relive their cherished locales once again? Collaborating with hospices seemed like a logical first step, though many were initially wary about that dreaded d-word: drone. Only one hospice, in fact, initially replied to his introductory email. “I came in with a PowerPoint presentation,” Davis recalls, adding he addressed the knocks against the technology before intriguing the hospice enough to get a trial run.

Davis dubbed the experience “A Flight to Remember,” which the first one certainly was. There was an 80-year-old, Carol, who was wheeled into a hospice hallway — the only place with a Wi-Fi signal strong enough to carry the video feed. Meanwhile, her family crowded around a laptop to watch. In the field, Davis wore an earpiece as he drove between the chosen locations. (Instructions were communicated via cellphone: “Up a little, to the left, right by my church…” You get the picture.)

Professionally, a number of researchers are using drones for anthropological research. Archaeologists at Dartmouth University use drones to track looters in Jordan, and radar-equipped drones track changes in parts of Peru. They’re a good alternative to helicopters, which are very expensive, says Chris Fisher, an anthropology professor at Colorado State University who’s used a drone to take aerial photographs of a research site in Honduras. “The way people are using drones right now could be worthy of study,” he says. “They’re being transformative from a sociocultural perspective.”

There’s something almost majestic about an aerial view.

Jennifer Stonebrook, Hospice of the Western Reserve

Over at the Hospice of the Western Reserve, in Cleveland, programs are designed to enrich the end of life. Meals are catered by highly ranked chefs and trips are made to ballgames. The facility receives a lot of suggestions for new activities, though many are more self-serving than altruistic, says its director of access to care, Jennifer Stonebrook. She saw Davis’ program as a way to complement her programs: “There’s something almost majestic about an aerial view,” she says. She’s budgeted 30 flights for the hospice this year, without any charge to patients but without disclosing how much she’s spending, and Stonebrook plans to replace the laptop with carts and a flat-screen TV — for a better viewing experience.

Even so, there may be issues with using drones this way. Battery life on some models averages about twenty minutes, and a number of places are banned by FAA regulations that forbid flying near airports or state parks. And then there’s public scorn to contend with. “It would concern me if I was watching it,” Melaragno says. “You hear about them in the news.” And that’s coming from a fan of the tech.

For now, Davis’ program remains free — but to scale, he may have to begin charging, with shoots that take about 90 minutes and aerial film rates that start at about $160 an hour. Not everyone will be interested, of course. Melaragno, for one, says she might have paid up to $100 to bring back her dad’s memories but isn’t sure about the top amount she would have been willing to spend.

Yet after Davis created a short film, Through the Lens, he won first place at the Bay Area Drone Film Festival’s “benefiting humanity” category in February. And he’s since been contacted by drone pilots across the country who want to introduce this concept to their own communities. There might also be some unexpected help from the FAA, which is set to announce an update to its regulations that could simplify the process for new fliers. “Drones are here,” says Davis, “and they’re here to help.”

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