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Aging in your smart home while preserving your privacy

The Bottom Line

  • Older adults prefer to stay in their homes for as long as possible.
  • As they age, they may find that it is difficult to perform some of their daily activities.
  • Smart technologies can help them perform tasks independently, monitor their health, and alert caregivers, health professionals or emergency services when needed.
  • It is important to consider whether smart technologies are the solution for you, based on your needs, preferences and other considerations (such as privacy).
 

More and more smart technologies are making their way into our homes. These technologies bring together a variety of electrical devices intended for our homes, whether electronic locks that can be programmed or video doorbells that can be managed remotely, air-quality sensors, smart light bulbs that can be controlled with your cell phone, motion-sensing cameras, voice-activated televisions and sound systems, and much more.

These technologies are said to be "smart" in that they use the Internet and advanced levels of automation to operate efficiently, often making automated choices based on past experiences and pre-established settings.

Among the array of smart technologies currently available, several have been designed specifically to support aging at home. For example, wireless-sensor networks can be placed in strategic locations to detect falls or emergencies. Different types of sensors can be used to monitor, for example, water consumption, body temperature and vital signs, as well as sleeping, walking or eating patterns. The information collected can be transmitted in real time to caregivers, health professionals or emergency services.

Such smart technologies could thus meet a need expressed by a majority of older adults who wish to live independently for as long as possible in their home. It can also be appealing to informal and family caregivers who want to make sure the home is safe, that medications and meals are taken, and that all the necessary care is provided.

A decision support tool examining different options for maintaining the independence of seniors in daily activities looked at the pros and cons of smart homes. In terms of benefits:
• Older adults living in a smart home are more likely to be able to perform daily activities compared to those who do not.
• Out of 100 older adults who live in a smart home, seven will avoid hospitalization during the first episode of 30 days of home care.
• Current research evidence does not show any effect of smart homes on the number of illnesses or injuries experienced by older adults.

These smart homes can also have some disadvantages, for example:
• Some older adults may be afraid of becoming too dependent on these technologies.
• Living in a smart home often requires the purchase and installation of equipment. If the technology needs to be connected to the Internet or to a web portal, a monthly fee will also be charged (which can vary from $ 130 and $ 150 per month).
• Some older adults living in rural and remote regions that are underserved by technological infrastructure (for example, those without access to high-speed Internet) may have difficulty accessing smart technologies.
• Some older adults may not be familiar with computers and this can make it difficult for them to learn to use smart technologies.
• The location of the technologies in the home (whether in the bedroom or bathroom) or the types and sizes of the devices can be intrusive.

This last point raises an important question dear to older adults, which relates to privacy. Can smart homes protect the privacy of those who wish to age at home?

What research tells us

A recent systematic review of 31 articles looked at technologies in smart homes to improve the quality of life of the elderly, mainly those related to health and environmental monitoring, and involving among others the use of sensors and robots.(1) While seniors generally seem to appreciate these technologies because they allow them to stay in their homes, several factors can influence the acceptability of these technologies (for example, age, gender, culture).

Technologies from floor to ceiling
Smart watches, voice-activated or remote-controlled household devices, infrared motion sensors, water or light intensity sensors, cameras, robots: to continuously monitor the well-being and health of older adults, a variety of devices can be installed everywhere in their house, even on their clothes and on their body.

Whether it is an emergency button that can be activated in the event of discomfort or an alert transmitted when a fall is detected, the use of smart technologies promotes autonomy and generates a greater sense of security among older adults, people with disabilities, those with dementia, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, and their caregivers.

In addition, advanced detection techniques and artificial intelligence are used to meet specific user needs. For example, some robots have the ability to recognize distinct activities, perform simple tasks, make it easier for the older adult to complete daily tasks, as well as provide voice reminders for medication.

Guaranteeing security and confidentiality
The systematic review underlines that respect for privacy and the security of the data collected and transmitted are issues to be considered. However, it is possible to use less intrusive technologies that recognize postures and not individuals, thereby maintaining confidentiality. In addition, cameras are not always required for a technology to be effective.

However, to ensure effective monitoring, it is necessary that the number of sensors is sufficient and that the technologies are deployed in all the rooms of the house, especially those where there is more risk of falling, such as the kitchen, the bedroom and the bathroom. This can sometimes be perceived as an invasion of privacy.

Is a smart home the solution for you (or your loved ones)?

If you or a loved one need help with your day-to-day activities at home, a smart home is one solution among many others.

Use a decision support tool to better understand your needs, preferences and the options available to you.

- If smart technologies are among the relevant solutions, but you have questions about their impact on your privacy, ask questions to the technology providers and your health professionals. For example :
• Are these technologies safe?
• Who can change the settings of these technologies?
• What types of information are collected?
• Is this information "encrypted" (that is, coded and protected in such a way that it is incomprehensible to those who do not have the code)?
• Is this information shared with third parties (for example, other health professionals or companies offering other services)?


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Author Details

References

  1. Gochoo M, Alnajjar F, Tan TH, Khalid S. Towards privacy-preserved aging in place: A systematic review. Sensors, 2021, 21: 3082.

  2. Giguère A. Maintaining independence in daily activities: Options to maintain independence of the older adult, Decision Box, Université Laval, 2017.

DISCLAIMER: Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of these blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations such as social distancing and frequent hand washing. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with current social distancing recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

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