Results from a Field Study: The Need for an Emotional Relationship between the Elderly and their Assistive Technologies

Keywords: ILSA system, focus group, social needs

Abstract: Many of the elder-care giving responsibilities of the aging population fall on the shoulders of adult children. Caregiver burnout is one of the top reasons for the transition from independent living to costly nursing homes or other care-giving facilities. As a result, technologists are rushing to find tools that can assist caregivers and augment the elder’s ability to age in place. For a generation whose introduction to technology includes the black and white television, where the metaphors of windows and desktops are not automatically understood, the blitz of PDAs, smart homes, and voice recognition systems can be confusing, intimidating and stressful. Add to this the elder’s need for companionship to ward off isolation and dementia, and the design problem transpires to a much bigger challenge than designing around physical limitations of the elderly. The idea of companionship provided by technology is not new. From the simple rule-based Tamagotchi pets to Sony’s sophisticated AIBO, there is a large body of evidence that shows that the owners of these robotic pets form genuine and meaningful emotional bonds. However, few solutions combine ‘purposeful utility’ with entertainment and companionship. Solutions that are ‘purposeful’ are predictable and seldom achieve the level of autonomy that captures the interest of and engages the user, while solutions with high entertainment value often lack functions that directly aid the elder with daily functions. We describe the details of a smart home field test, and examine focus group discussions that were conducted with both the participants and their adult children caregivers. We identify discussions from focus group transcripts that are related to the user’s social behaviours and emotions towards the technology, and changes in the user’s interaction with his/her caregiver caused by the introduction of the technology. We describe some aspects of the “personality” the participants projected onto the smart home despite the intended lack of physical character embodiment of the system, and relate this to existing theoretical work from human-human interactions and human learning theory. Finally, we offer insight into how these observations might translate into functional implementations to reap the benefits of assistive technology as a means to both reduce the burden of caregivers and provide companionship.

Wu, P., & Miller, C. (2005, July 22-27). Results from a Field Study: The Need for an Emotional Relationship between the Elderly and their Assistive Technologies. Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Augmented Cognition, Las Vegas, NV. - [PDF]