My grandma and her smart home.

Elderly woman using a tablet

Elderly woman using a tablet
(source: http://www.ashvillesmarthomes.com/)

Well, I wish that my grandma was living in a smart home but she doesn’t and this post is going to briefly discuss some of the challenges why smart homes for health services for elderly are not yet an everyday reality and what needs to be done to get there.

An area with interesting results in monitoring services is this of smart homes. In the past technologies for smart homes meant that a set of sensor would have to be wired into the house. This installation was a problem since it meant drilling holes into walls, getting cables inside them or under the floor and generally a general disturbance for the older adult living in the house. That is also a reason why many of the researches in the area where building their own testing house environments and bringing people to live into them. Wireless technology has lifted this significant barrier in installation of such a system. However it doesn’t seem to have affected the cost barrier which is still high. Sensors like cameras, infrared movement sensors, bed sensors, water detecting sensors etc. can now be installed and connected wirelessly in a central monitoring system such as the one presented by Eric Gunther.

However, research and development in the area of wearable systems often tends to underestimate issues of applicability, appropriateness and usefulness. As pointed out by Dan Ding et al in their review of available technologies for smart home environments “More evidence on the appropriateness, usefulness, and cost benefits analysis of sensor technologies for smart homes is necessary before these sensors should be widely deployed into real-world residential settings and successfully integrated into everyday life and health care services”. Three years earlier in a study presenting a model for participatory formative model of evaluation of smart home environments the authors George Demiris et al conclude that “Their (smart home sensors’ for elderly) success depends not only on the technical feasibility of specific devices and sensors but also on the level of successful integration into everyday life and health care services. Thus, extensive and on-going evaluation can reveal challenges and allow for participants to provide feedback and improve the overall system”.

The challenge of successful integration in living environments is indicative of the problems that research is facing when trying to transfer ICT applications in real life. In general research tends to focus on the sensors efficiency, their durability, sustainability, accuracy and other technical aspects leaving out of the equation human factors. If sensors are placed in wrong places they might get disconnected, damaged, stop functioning due to a variety of reasons from cleaning up the house to pets fooling around with them and finally destroying them. This is one of the biggest challenges for the future of research and innovation in the area of smart homes for health care services for elderly. Maybe a different innovation model based on user cantered design and implementation would provide with answers and solutions easier than already existing ones.

Succesful integration is not the only issue with smart homes for health services. Another one has to do with the monitoring and caring services connected with them. How does such a health care service respond to malfunctioning of sensors? How should it respond to sensors being tampered and broken? How should it respond in danger alerts? What happens with false alarms? Should a caregiver be sent to home in all of these cases? If an elderly person gets visits all the time from a caregiver because his cat is tempering with sensors sending false alarms this is a case where care becomes annoying.

There is a wide area of research in this direction and questions like the latter should be addressed before such services are implemented widely. Let’s not forget that it is a lot easier for a participant to accept such nuances in his personal life when he willingly participates in a study, but such problems in services would be unacceptable if they were provided under a subscription scheme.

PS. The old lady in the photo is NOT my grandma…

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