Researchers: Future falls detection devices should meet emotional needs

A growing number of researchers are exploring the way that humans interact with computers. So much, in fact, that a common term has taken hold to describe this field of research: human-computer interactions or HCI.

A popular area of HCI research is technology that supports older adults and enables them to remain independent in their homes. That research is focused on products to detect falls and help adult children stay connected with aging parents. A group of researchers at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom saw an issue they felt was being neglected by recent HCI studies: the communications needs of older adults at risk of falls and their remote families.

These U.K. researchers reported on their findings in May at an international symposium where experts from around the globe gathered to share HCI information.

What they asked

The purpose of the U.K. study was to explore the technologies commonly used to automatically detect and communicate the falls of older adults.

Researchers wanted to find answers to the following:

  • What are older adults’ attitudes towards fall detection technology?
  • What are their needs for communication with their remote family?
  • What are the communications needs of adult children?

Who they asked

The study’s authors gathered information through individual interviews with seven older adults—three who lived independently and four who lived in senior communities—and three adult children. Researchers also conducted a group interview with 12 older adults in an assisted living facility.

What they found

Three themes emerged through interviews, revealing that the subject of falls among older adults was an emotional one.

The themes were:

Family’s anxiety over their elderly parent’s risk of falling.

Interviews with adult children centered on how often they spoke with their parent and preferences regarding fall monitoring devices.

The researchers noted that all adult children displayed a high level of anxiety. All participants thought a monitoring device was a good idea; some preferred automatic communication while others thought they, or their parent, should control the frequency and level of information.

Autonomy and privacy of older adults at risk of falls.

Questions posed to older adults related to whether or not they had fallen. If they had, they were asked how they felt afterwards and its affect on them and their family.

The older adults were more concerned with maintaining their independence than with the risk of falling. A few of the comments included:

  • “I would find (a fall detection device) invasive.”
  • “Sometimes I fall over and I’m quite alright. I don’t want someone fussing around me.”

Most of the independent seniors interviewed did not use safety-monitoring devices, while most of those at the assisted living facility did wear an “emergency alert” pendant.

Aesthetics of fall detection devices.

All study participants were asked how they felt about electronic monitoring devices. Based on feedback, these factors influence the adoption of devices by older adults:

  • Devices need to provide easy control to the older adult, who can adjust for frequency of notifications to family and how extensive the information will be.
  • Design/appearance of the device should be unobtrusive.

The takeaway

In their report, the study’s authors state that there is “…a tension between the peace of mind that such technology will provide to the children, and the demand for autonomy and privacy of the parent.” This tension brings with it a lot of emotion.

Since the findings of the U.K. study were only recently made public, it is too soon to see what, if any, impact they will have. Let’s hope the companies who develop electronic safety devices for older adults will take into account the emotional needs of those for whom their products are intended, and their anxious family members.

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