Digital independence or disempowerment for our rural older people?

We all have an older family member who we’ve tried – and failed – to persuade to use aids, from walking sticks to hearing aids, that we think would make their lives easier.

When they live further away from us, or more remotely, offering support can be even harder and it’s becoming an increasing issue. The number of people living alone aged over 65 is expected to increase 18% by 2028 and 42% by 2043, to nearly 500,000 people.

For Scotland’s rural areas, where a larger proportion of people are aged over 45, and especially over 65, it’s more acute.

Are smart devices the answer to greater independence?

Could smart or assisitive devices – from voice assistants like Alexa and smart televisions to medical aids – be the answer? Are they a route to greater independence? Could they help ease feelings of isolation as we age? Or could they make older people feel like they’re under constant surveillance?

It’s both, according to research by The James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen. Rachel Creaney, a researcher  from the Hutton spent time during her PhD (co-supervised between James Hutton Institute and University of St Andrews) with a group of older people in rural Scotland and their care networks to see how smart tech was working out – or not – for them, from voice recognition devices to smart medical aids.

On the one hand she found feelings of imprisonment by new digital tech, as well as surveillance, making them change their behaviour or hide accidents, while their children used Facebook to covertly check up on them. On the other hand, it helped increase independence, communication and access to entertainment, like Netflix, and eased pressure on support networks.

Putting on a performance

“Our work showed us that, while these devices can help people be more independent, increasing surveillance can make older people feel like they have to ‘perform’ more to avoid the stereotypes they fear being bottled into to a much greater extent,” says Rachel Creaney, about her research, which has been published in the Journal of Aging Studies. “Smart technologies could offer a great way to ease some challenges, but also could be perceived as increased monitoring and and additional pressure to behave in certain ways.

“For some, smart devices, from voice assistants to fall alarms, were a way they can feel like they are being helpful to their care networks or reducing their dependence on others. But this could also mean hiding their difficulties from these devices, making them pretend or act like they were fine, so carers didn’t worry.”

“For the carers, while smart devices helped those they want to support and helped reduce how much they had to support them, there was also a flip side where they then had to help more with fixing devices,” says Dr Mags Currie, a senior research at the Hutton and one of Rachel’s former PhD supervisors.

Convincing carers

It can be complex. So Rachel used a concept called dramaturgy in her PhD to try to understand the dynamics between use of smart or assistive devices, care networks and older people. This is a way of looking at how people change their behaviour in different circumstances – for example, behaving or performing how they think others want them to behave when they know they’re being watched.

“We found that our older participants felt like they had to work harder to convince their audiences of their roles and identities in (increasingly) digitalised homes,” says Rachel. “This can them make them feel disempowered, as increasing surveillance forces them to behave differently”.

“For example, without surveillance, a minor fall could be hidden. But hiding these events becomes difficult within a digitalised home. Fall alarms make them more ‘on show’, potentially impacting the relationship between older people and their caring network, but also their sense of home.”

Misuing devices

This could mean not using devices as they were intended, because they felt like they were being monitored, or resulting in carers or family using other means to monitor them, such as checking when they were last active on Messenger or Facebook.

It can also mean the older person and carer perceive an event differently, due to an older person pretending that an alarm was set off was an accident, for example, unaware they’re being monitored in other ways.

“One way of looking at this is that digital home devices are percolating people’s ‘backstage spaces’, reducing their privacy,” says Rachel. “This change was, at least initially, accepted by our older participants, apparently due to resulting opportunities for independence.

“But we do need to look at how this then plays out and impacts people. Older people are already navigating the health declines of older age, pressures from their caring networks and society to behave in a particular way,” says Rachel. “While willing to ‘put up with’ more devices, in order to stay at home for longer, a sense of increased monitoring could make their homes feel more like the care homes they are trying to avoid.”

Rachel’s research was published in the Journal of Aging Studies and can be found here.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.