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Study: Technology Changes Meaning of Home


More and more older Canadians opt for surveillance technology to remain at home.

Health-related technologies, like those featured in ambient assisted living, have exploded in recent years. Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) technology uses sensors and wearable devices to monitor health, detect emergencies and report unusual behaviour. Communications networks provide assistance and encouragement during daily activities.

So how does this novel technology influence individuals' experience of home?

B.C. researchers led by Ben Mortenson from University of British Columbia conducted in-depth interviews with 27 community-dwelling individuals, aged 60 to 95, in search of an answer.

The participants were recruited from Vancouver, B.C. and San Francisco, California. All had at least one chronic disease, and nearly half used a mobility device such as a walker or scooter. Most of the participants were female, and almost half had been hospitalized in the year prior to the study.

In addition to interviews, older adults viewed a promotional video for a home monitoring system. On completion of the video, the researchers asked participants to describe their thoughts and feelings, and the potential effect that AAL may have upon them and how it might change the meaning of their home environments.

"No Place Like Home? Surveillance and What Home Means in Old Age," appeared in the March 2016 issue of the Canadian Journal on Aging.

Home sweet home

Previous research has shown that older people who need support want to continue living at home. This was also the case for the participants in this study.

Seventeen of the participants described home as a safe place where they felt secure.

As Elizabeth, 75, put it, "I feel free and . . . I am still able to do things that need to be done and things I want to do."

Most of the older adults felt that AAL would make them feel more secure in their homes.

"When you are experiencing various physical symptoms and live by yourself, it's easy to get a little bit frightened of incidents happening and not being able to summon assistance," one 77-year-old woman explained.

Almost all of the participants gave thumbs up to the use of medication reminders for those with memory problems. Most were unconcerned that the system might be set up to contact an informal caregiver if a dose was missed. However, one 63-year-old was uneasy with the medication reminding system, saying that "It depends on the individual."

Under the microscope

The researchers found participants were willing to trade personal privacy for the potential to remain at home. Yet two-thirds of the older adults raised concerns about privacy.

For example, Maria didn't want a camera looking at her in her home. "It's like someone going through your garbage," she said.

Similarly, Debra claimed, "It would be . . . like living in a nursing home in your own home."

Others expressed concerns about personal dignity. For example, Colleen, an 88-year-old with a bilateral hip replacement asserted: "I wouldn't want to be watched going in and out on the bathroom. That would be . . . encroaching on my privacy."

In addition, several worried about which caregivers would have access to their AAL data, and how it would be used.

As one woman explained:

If an incident happened and the family had wanted to gain more control over their father's finances, they could use the data to display that his cognitive function is declining: 'So it's time for us to step in there and handle all of his finances.'


Many of the participants felt that AAL would reduce stress and relieve pressure on their families and other caregivers.

But some worried that the new technology would make them feel like more of a burden. "I wouldn't want anything where people had to spend their lives devoted to checking on me all the time," one man stated.

And two of the participants raised concerns about whether AAL could contribute to experiences of loneliness. As one participant explained:

Sometimes older people are really lonely, and, so in a society where resources are not available or limited, I think that people could be left on their own under the watchful eye of the device rather than receiving personal contact.

Striking a balance

Older adults believed the home-based surveillance system could contribute to their sense of security and enable them to stay at home longer.

At the same time, the research showed participants felt AAL would influence their sense of autonomy and self-confidence and alter their perceptions of home.

The study concludes AAL may have the potential to empower residents who adopt it, given the users have control over:

  • who has access to their sensor data
  • how alerts are triggered, and
  • what responses are provided.

Few options

Faced with limited home care, people are accepting technologies because they realize technology can help keep them at home.

This trend is likely to accelerate as the population ages. But as Mortenson and his colleagues point out, the experience of "old age" is socially constructed, and tracking technologies are part of the new social context in which the experience of aging is played out.

Better home care, and more communal housing options would mean older Canadians could rely on assistance from others to maintain their independence, and thereby reduce their dependence on technology.