Assistive technology doesn’t have to be complicated or high-tech to support older people to remain at home, a study of off-the shelf smart home devices by a rural and remote aged care provider has found.

The final report of the Intelligent Home Solutions for Independent Living project looked at a range of so-called ‘set and forget’ devices including Google Home systems, smart lights, smart kettles, tablets and robotic vacuum cleaners.

The study was done by researchers from Deakin and Monash Universities in partnership with McLean Care, which received a federal CHSP Innovation Grant to explore the incorporation of smart home devices in the lives and homes of older people living in regional communities.

Participants were given the opportunity to have fun with the smart home devices, make mistakes and take their time to learn each function with technical support of the project team, creating an ideal learning environment.

Associate Professor Ben Horan

 It involved 23 households from McLean Care’s CHSP client base in Inverell, Tamworth and Gunnedah who were supplied with a range of smart home technologies that didn’t require hard-wiring to be installed.

The project team believes the study is the first of its kind in the world.

Benefits and challenges

Yolande Strengers

The research found that being part of the trial was of benefit to participants, helped to demystify digital technology and taught them new skills.

“We have moved well beyond the concept that older people don’t engage with technology,” the report concludes.

Overall, the devices provided ‘small but significant’ comforts and conveniences and helped participants stay safe and active, the report says. It also helped keep their minds active, fostered social interaction and helped them manage everyday routines – for example keeping their homes clean or using smart light-enabled medication reminders.

On the downside, some participants had trouble fixing small technical issues and worried they were becoming too dependent on the devices or the tech support team.  Some struggled with voice activated devices and learning Google Home commands, as well as using buttons and touch screens. Others were reticent about making large new investments in smart technology.

There were also practical issues, such as the smart kettle being too heavy and the robotic vacuum unsettling for some, as well as being a potential tripping hazard.

Two households withdrew from the trial because they found the technology too overwhelming.

But generally the technology was well recieved. When asked to report on a scale of 1 to 5 how likely they were to recommend the of technologies to others the average the score was 3.9 out of 5.

Closing the digital divide

The report recommends that individually tailored and affordable smart technology should be included as “optional extras” for home care and calls for education and ongoing research.

Project lead Yolande Strengers from Monash University says older people are marginalised when it comes to the design of smart home devices and often underrepresented in user studies.

“Despite the many benefits smart home devices can offer the elderly population, many older Australians are increasingly concerned about being left behind in the digital age, highlighting the need for proactive policy and research initiatives to help bridge this gap,” she said.

“It is imperative that this group must continue to be at the heart of policy and research initiatives aimed at closing the digital divide.”

Associate Professor Ben Horan from Deakin University’s CADET Virtual Reality Training and Simulation Research Lab said the research revealed insights about how older people used smart technologies. 

“Our team recorded usage data from the devices to identify how often they were used, at what times, and using what functionalities. We were also able to understand the kinds of voice requests and challenges with voice activation that older people faced when engaging with Google Home functions,” he said. 

“Participants were given the opportunity to have fun with the smart home devices, make mistakes and take their time to learn each function with technical support of the project team, creating an ideal learning environment.” 

The research was published before the release of the final report of the aged care royal commission, which calls for the establishment of a separate home modification and assistive tech category within the proposed new aged care program.

The category would provide grant-funded goods, aids and equipment and services to promote safe and independent living at home, the commissioners recommended.

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