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Researchers are delving into smart technology and looking at just how it will impact homes for seniors

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To what extent will smart technology and artificial intelligence augment aged care?

It’s a question explored by researchers from Monash University and Deakin University, in collaboration with McLean Care, in their project: Smart Homes for Seniors, Intelligent Home Solutions for Independent Living.

An award-winning project, it has recently received the IoT Australia award for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Action.

The project observed 23 households across rural NSW, observing how the 33 participants, aged 73-93, responded to a variety of smart home devices, including:

  • Digital voice assistant
  • Smart lights
  • Smart kettles
  • Robotic vacuum cleaners
  • Tablet devices

Professor Sarah Pink, director of the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University, attended households in the initial stage of the study, shooting preliminary video data as part of her signature visual ethnographic method.

But she tells Aged Care News that the COVID pandemic dealt researchers a unique curveball, preventing them from returning to participants homes as planned.

“So instead, we actually used various different technologies to contact them again, but one of the key technologies we used was actually one of the new smart technologies that they’ve been using as part of the trial, which was a tablet.”

Pink says that this adaption added a new and valuable dimension to an already unique collaboration. 

“Undertaking that very unique collaboration during a pandemic enabled us to generate some important insights about how some of the technologies could support people in that kind of emergency situation of the pandemic as well.”

Monash University’s Professor Sarah Pink says a popular and useful piece of smart technology in her Smart Homes for Seniors, Intelligent Home Solutions for Independent Living project, was the smart light, which proved to be an invaluable tool for fall prevention.

The initial technology proficiency of participants varied, but most went through an individual process of learning and integrating the technology into their lives as they saw fit.

Pink notes that for everyone, not just seniors, learning to interact with artificial intelligence, such as a smart speaker, is like learning a ‘slightly different language’.

“There was there was a lot of joking with the digital voice assistants to start with, testing and probing.”

As their confidence with the technology increased, participants developed bespoke uses for the tech, such as seeking information, listening to music or ‘phoning a friend’ for that elusive answer to a crossword.

The other most popular, and perhaps most useful, piece of smart technology was the smart light, which proved to be an invaluable tool for fall prevention.

“If you want to get up in the night and it’s dark, then it’s very useful to be able to ask a light to go on in the corridor or in the next room so you can see your way ahead,” Pink says.

Principles and predictions for future integration of AI into care models

Pink says the study, with its small sample size and rich qualitative dataset, was not aiming to draw generalised conclusions about older Australians.

Rather, she says it provided “deep insights” into the nature of participants lives, from which “strong principles” can be developed for future research.

“One of the important findings for me was the idea that these technologies won’t just land in seniors’ homes and improve their lives,” Pink says.

“In most cases, it was actually the relationship between the technology, the seniors, and the people who were supporting them in using those technologies.

“So there’s this principle that actually, what we really need to look at is the relationship between the technologies to seniors and other humans.”

 “It’s so important to actually not just assume that technologies are going to help seniors in particular ways, but to actually do the research with seniors, as they learn to use those technologies to work out which ones are the most helpful for them.”

She says that the research indicates that going forward, hybrid systems of care look promising, those that include smart technologies alongside, and integrated with, existing human interventions, 

 “…where seniors might use technologies for some things, but they’re also still having people coming in to help them in their homes.”

“So it’s about actually thinking about the best way in which to fit those technologies into a kind of a complete set of relationships.”

Though the human touch is not yet rivalled by any robotic device, the COVID-pandemic has only emphasised the need for efficient and effective technological substitutions.  

 “If somebody won’t be able to come in and clean for you, or do the vacuuming, then having a robotic vacuum cleaner and maybe having the possibility to be able to use it more, during a pandemic, would be super useful,” Pink says.

Vitally, she emphasises that technological solutions for seniors must not be decided for them, but constructed around their stated preferences.

“It will be super interesting to look further at how artificial intelligence and other automated technologies can play a bigger role in seniors’ lives, but also to look at the extent to which seniors would like that to happen and where their real interests lie.”

Not only do these preferences vary between individuals, but also within individuals as they progress through their senior years.

“Some of our participants thought that the technologies weren’t really necessary for them at the moment… [but] the situations of seniors change and evolve over time.

“So that flexibility is really important,” she says.

Smart Homes for Seniors, a film directed by Pink documenting the journey of the study participants, will launch on November 25 during an online Monash Tech Talks event .

The online webinar will discuss:

  • the priorities, needs and experiences of our ageing population.
  • the dire importance of accounting for the voices of seniors when designing new technologies.
  • innovations that will support older generations to stay safe, independent and active at home.
  • the Intelligent Home Solutions project behind the film, a collaboration with McLean Care, Monash University’s Emerging Technologies Research Lab and Deakin University.
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