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Study: Home Tracking Devices: Big Brother or Freedom?


A growing number of Canadians agree to tracking systems to stay in their homes longer. But few studies have looked at monitoring technology from the older person’s point of view.

  • How do monitoring systems impact their day-to-day lives?
  • How do they experience being monitored 24 hours a day?
  • Who should have access to their personal data?
  • How can the technology be improved?

Recently, researchers put these questions to a small group of Dutch residents, who had monitoring systems installed in their homes for an 18-month period. The participants, aged 68 to 93, were part of a pilot project. They lived alone and all had health problems.

Monitoring technology

The monitoring system consisted of 16 simple binary sensors, including:

  • passive infrared motion sensors (to detect motion in specific areas)
  • magnetic contact sensors on doors and cabinets (to measure whether doors are opened or closed), and
  • a flush sensor in the toilet (to measure toilet being flushed).

The sensors registered only in-home activities. There was no camera or sound recording of the participants.

The system’s software tracked older people’s daily living activities and transmitted the results automatically to health professionals who monitored the participants. The system did not include an alarm system to detect emergencies.

The findings were published online in The Gerontologist on Nov. 10, 2014.

Boosted sense of security

The study found the monitoring system boosted participants’ sense of safety and security. As one explained, "Look these are my sensors, they are my watch dogs and they look after me."

Another participant said, "I feel safe with this because, without noticing it, somebody is keeping an eye on me."

Safety trumps privacy

Some studies have raised concerns with how these technologies may effect users’ privacy, but safety trumped privacy for these older adults. Indeed, most participants said that they did not notice the sensors after a period of time. "These sensors are hanging up and, yes, you can see them, but they aren’t that bad," one woman said.

They emphasized the sensors register their movements without cameras or sound. "You can only see that I am moving but not what I am doing," explained one participant.

However, two older adults said they did not like been monitored.

As well, two mentioned their children had a problem with the monitoring. They were afraid that others would know more than necessary about their father or mother.

Access to personal data

In this study, health care professionals monitored the system. And while some of the participants were interested in having access to their personal data, others were not. Some felt they lacked the technological knowledge to understand it, for instance.

Others did not want to be reminded of their health problems. "You know yourself how well you are doing during the day," one participant said. "In this way you are going to be so confronted with it and now I try not to pay attention to it."

One man noted the system could replace unnecessary home visits from health care workers: "The community care nurse doesn’t have to come in every time. They can just do the follow up in this way."

Some viewed the data positively. "There is a sensor hanging above the sideboard," explained one man. "So when I come downstairs I’m doing my exercise in front of it, and I start swinging my legs for 20 minutes."

Although most participants said their children had access to their data, many were concerned about making demands on them.

One woman put it this way:

My children are allowed to look into it, but I never would ask them to come and help me. No never. Both my children are working during the day from morning til evening. They have busy jobs, their own company. I just wouldn’t want . . . that your children have to look after you.

Helpful resource

Nine out of the 11 participants in this study viewed technology as a resource that:

  • helped them to remain independently at home
  • contributed to their sense of safety, and
  • encouraged them to remain active.

They gave the monitoring system high marks because it did not require any action from them. And they suggested adding an emergency alarm to the system to increase its usefulness.

The last point reinforces calls by many outside the industry to involve older people in product development, so problems can be ironed out in advance.