Aging in Place with Technology: Study Shows Older Adults Will Sacrifice Some Privacy to Remain in Their Homes Longer

Younger adults might cringe at the thought of being monitored in their homes by technology. Yet a new study from the Georgia Institute of Technology indicates that older adults are willing to give up some privacy -- if it enables them to remain independent longer.

"That illustrates how important it is to older adults to stay in their homes rather than move into some type of assisted-living housing," said Wendy Rogers, a professor of psychology at Georgia Tech. Rogers presented preliminary findings of the study at CHI2004, an international conference on computer-human interaction held April 24-29 in Vienna, Austria.

The study, which examined older adults' perception of a technology-rich home environment, was part of the multidisciplinary Aware Home project conducted at Georgia Tech's Broadband Institute Residential Laboratory. The laboratory, funded in part by the Georgia Research Alliance, is a unique three-story house where researchers focus on domestic technologies for the future. The study Rogers presented was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

For this study, researchers invited 44 adults ages 65 to 75 to tour the residential laboratory and view new technologies designed by Georgia Tech College of Computing researchers specifically to help people age in place. These technologies, ranging from low to high levels of intrusiveness, included:

• "Cook's Collage," which photographs people during meal preparation and displays the cook's six most recent actions on a flat-panel display mounted over the countertop. The idea is to prevent distracted chefs from forgetting what actions they've already taken. To reduce "Big Brother" appearances, cameras are mounted out of sight and only show the chef's hands.

• "Digital Family Portrait" helps out-of-town family members keep an eye on aging relatives. A display monitor hangs in the caregiver's home and displays a static photo of the older relative. The photo is surrounded by a digital-image frame whose icons change daily to reflect information about the older adult's life, such as general activity level.

• "FaceBot" is a communication device that interacts with other home technologies. Designed to create a personality for these technologies, FaceBot features two cameras for eyes, microphones as ears and a speaker as its mouth. Instead of giving voice commands to an empty room, such as "turn up the temperature," residents can talk directly to FaceBot.

Researchers asked participants what they specifically liked and disliked about the technologies. To spark qualitative responses, all questions were subjective in nature, such as: What is your first impression about living in a home like this? How would you feel about living here? Do you think there may be situations in which an Aware Home could invade your privacy?

The interviews with older adults were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim. Researchers then created a coding scheme and analyzed comments along different dimensions, such as attitude to technology and context of use.

"Understanding how older adults evaluate technology provides insights into their judgments and decision-making processes, which will help us design tools they will actually use," Rogers said. "Technology in the home is useless if people don't want it."