Pros and cons of a ‘stranger’ in the house

“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!” exclaimed 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 evaluated the opportunities and challenges of incorporating smart-home technologies into the homes and lives of older people living in the rural and regional towns of Gunnedah, Tamworth and Inverell in NSW.

For an age group stereotypically considered technological Luddites, our research findings highlight the playful curiosity of people in their 70s, 80s and 90s as they experiment with new technologies.

Each household participating 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.

Our project report highlights how a group of older Australians engaged with these smart technologies to enhance their wellbeing and independence. We also uncovered how – at an average age of 82 – the 33 participants found entertainment, joy and comfort through these devices.

An elderly couple photographed from behind, sitting using a smart-home tablet.

Getting friendly with voice assistants

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

The resident pet bird was also keen to join the fun in Jodie’s household. One afternoon she found some videos on her tablet that she watched with her pet bird Buddy. “[He] was sitting on my shoulder, and in the end he and I were both laughing at these dogs and cats.”

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”.

Read more: Facing up to the challenges of Malaysia’s ageing population

Ron and Brenda enjoyed the selection of screensaver photos displayed on their smart tablet, which allowed them to virtually ‘travel’ to new destinations.

“I must say that I love all the photos that show on the screen. They’re lovely … I can sit here and just watch that and really enjoy it,” said Brenda.

The trial itself was also a source of entertainment for some participants.

“It’s been a good talking point,” said Mary, noting that it had also generated a few “giggles”. For Shirley, a participant in her 90s, the opportunity to experiment with technologies and learn new skills was also “good fun, you know. I’m sorry that I’m not younger and can enjoy it more”.

A stranger in the house

However, welcoming smart technologies into their homes wasn’t always fun and games for these seniors. Participants often felt frustration when a storm-induced blackout disrupted the connection, when the devices provided delayed responses, or when their voice assistant didn’t pick up their commands or replied that it “couldn’t help”.

These issues were continually addressed by the project technician and the research team, who over months developed personalised rapport with each participant, and learned ways of delivering support onsite and remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Talking with voice-activated devices also had its challenges for this age group. As 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. “See, to me, that’s rude,” she said.

Read more: Smart homes: Innovation, evaluation and real-life experience

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]. ‘You’re welcome’, or something like that.”

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,” Hilda said.

The smart voice assistant also raised concern among some participants when it answered back randomly, or joined a conversation uninvited. To counteract these intrusions, one visitor to a participant’s home disconnected her friend’s speaker, others whispered when talking about “her”, and others such as Ken directly confronted it by asking, “Hey Google. Do you listen to our conversations?”

A Google mini voice-activated speaker

Inclusivity starts with design

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.

Closing the gap

People aged 65 and above remain Australia’s least digitally included group. What’s more, the gap between older Australians and the most digitally-included age group (35-49) has widened since 2014, though there has been some progress in the past few years.

With COVID-19’s physical distancing measures, seniors have been at greater risk of social isolation and loneliness due to their digital exclusion – a risk that our research shows could be partly alleviated through the kinds of projects we’ve delivered.

When the trial ended, more than half of the participants opted to keep their devices. McLean Care is now taking the lessons from this research to improve its home-based aged care services, and to help more older Australians realise the benefits of technology to enhance their independence and wellbeing.

*Pseudonyms were used for some participant names to protect their identity.

The Smart Homes for Seniors project was funded by the Australian government Department of Health through a Commonwealth Home Support Program Innovation grant. Our co-authors on the Smart Homes for Seniors Final Research Evaluation Report were Michael Mortimer, Sarah Pink, Alicia Eugene, Rex Martin, Larissa Nicholls, Ben Horan and Sue Thomson.

We wish to acknowledge the people of the Kulin Nations, on whose land the Monash and Deakin university teams work; and the people of the Jukumbal, Kamilaroi/Gomeroi Nations, on whose land the McLean Care team work, and on whose land this project was undertaken. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present, and emerging.


This article was first published on Monash Lens. Read the original article

Melisa Duque is a research fellow, Emerging Technologies Research Lab, MADA, and Yolande Strengers is an associate professor, digital technology and society, Emerging Technologies Research Lab.

This article was first published by Lens at Monash University.

Do you have smart technology in your home? If so, which devices have you found most helpful? If not, why not?

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