Lightbulb moments: Getting seniors switched on to smart home tech

Smart Homes for Seniors project aims to bridge digital divide

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Participants in the Smart Home Solutions study trialed voice-activated lights, vacuum cleaners and more.

Participants in the Smart Home Solutions study trialed voice-activated lights, vacuum cleaners and more.

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Project bridges digital divide between seniors and smart home technologies.

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"Hey Google, play hip-hop music," said Bob, a man in his late 70s. He wasn't the only one. Helen and Ken, also in their 70s, loved playing music on their voice assistant speaker. "The music's fantastic!" said Ken. "I like the classics; I like the jazz and the hip-hop."

Bob, Helen and Ken* were participants in the Smart Homes for Seniors project, a partnership between aged care provider McLean Care, Monash University and Deakin University.

The project looked at the opportunities and challenges of incorporating smart-home technologies into the homes of older people in the rural and regional towns of Gunnedah, Tamworth and Inverell in NSW.

Each household taking part in the trial had a different suite of devices installed to meet their housing layout, lifestyles and needs.

These included smart lights, robotic vacuum cleaners, smart kettles, tablets, and voice assistant speakers.

The research involved participant insights, electronic data from the devices showing participants' usage patterns, user reviews and end-of-trial surveys.

It found that from digital voice assistants to automated 'smart' lights and robotic vacuum cleaners, readily available off-the-shelf smart home devices can support the wellbeing and independence of older Australians.

Giving seniors a voice

Helen and Ken were delighted by birds that visited their window when they asked their smart speaker to play music with birdsong and waterfalls. "Once this [speaker] is going, the birds next door all join in," said Helen.

Other participants looked to the trialled technologies for different sources of entertainment, such as jokes or quizzes. "I've played a few of those [quizzes]," said Claire, who liked speaking to her voice assistant as a way to keep her "mind active".

Another couple enjoyed the selection of screensaver photos displayed on their smart tablet, which allowed them to virtually "travel" to new destinations.

One participant in her 90s, said the opportunity to experiment with technologies and learn new skills was good fun. "I'm sorry that I'm not younger and can enjoy it more," she said.

Stranger in the house

However, welcoming smart technologies into their homes wasn't always fun and games for some.

Participants often felt frustration when a storm-induced blackout disrupted the connection, when the devices provided delayed responses.

Talking with voice-activated devices also had its challenges for this age group, with frustration when their voice assistant didn't pick up their commands or replied that it "couldn't help".

One participant, Edna, said: "You've got to get used to the language." For her and other participants, saying "Hey" to activate Google did not come naturally. "To me, that's rude," she said.

For other participants such as Beryl, saying "please" and "thank you" to a voice assistant reflected how her generation had been raised. "Somebody's helping you," she explained.

But the devices didn't always appreciate or acknowledge her manners. "Well, now and again I get a polite answer back [from Google]."

Hilda found that talking to a smart speaker to activate her kettle also required unfamiliar language. "I think quickly, and so I would say 'jug' [instead of 'kettle']". Google's language settings also fell short in accounting for cultural sensitivity. "Sometimes I may use Indigenous language, but it would never, ever switch on for me," she said.

Bridging the digital divide

Monash University Project Lead, Associate Professor in the Emerging Technologies Research Lab, Yolande Strengers, said older people are a marginalised demographic when it comes to the design of smart home devices and are 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 opening the digital world to seniors requires greater recognition of their experiences, interests, challenges and needs.

"While the majority of technology studies with this demographic focus on maintaining functional health, safety and independence, our research shows that wellbeing benefits can come in another form - as a source of entertainment and play.

"We also found that unique design, accessibility, and privacy considerations were overlooked by device manufacturers. Voice-activated assistants need to be culturally sensitive to how people interact and talk with them, and consider personalised mannerisms that are comfortable and familiar for people in their senior years."

Researchers identified a number of recommendations to equip older people and bridge the digital divide.

These included offering smart home devices as optional extras for in-home services, providing opportunities for learning to gain digital living skills, providing affordable and reliable internet services, and designing and installing smart home devices that support older people's independence, mobility and memory.

This project was funded by the Australian Government Department of Health through a Commonwealth Home Support Program Innovation grant.

*Names changed.

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