The value of culture

XVI.4 July + August 2009
Page: 48
Digital Citation

LIFELONG INTERACTIONSSupporting healthy aging with new technologies

Brian Jones, Claudia Winegarden, Wendy Rogers

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Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have the potential to enrich many aspects of our lives. The power of wireless computing and networks allow us to connect anytime, anywhere with everything and everyone. New applications and gadgets grow at such a phenomenal rate that technologies aid us in almost all of our everyday activities. By using mobile devices, we can find information in seconds on just about any topic. We can securely store personal health information online to be accessed from anywhere. We meet others with similar interests around the world without leaving the comfort of our homes.

While these experiences are commonplace for many, especially among younger adults and teens, this trend is in fact resulting in a greater divide with older adult generations. Some older adults are familiar with and even proficient at using ICTs, but their use of advanced technologies continues to lag behind younger adults, perhaps limiting their options to maintain independence and health. As many countries, including the United States, face a marked increase in their older adult populations, it is imperative that we design ICTs to assist older adults to remain independent in their own homes, to recognize the benefits of such technologies, as well as how to use them effectively.

Designing ICTs to help adults function independently as they grow older is certainly not a new area of research. However, if not done effectively, these technologies will not be successfully adopted. A number of factors affect the use of such technologies by older adults: functionality, value, design, cost, privacy, trust, and acceptance. All of them require a multidisciplinary approach.

At Georgia Tech, there are several active research programs considering the older adult population, including the design of: technological applications to support aging-in-place, mobile health applications, livable communities, and safer home environments. Moreover, there are studies that examine the needs of older adults, as well as their perceptions and acceptance of such technologies. These research efforts are leveraging the knowledge and expertise of others on campus, as well as those at other universities. One project receiving great recognition in the area of aging research is the Aware Home Research Initiative (AHRI)—a multidisciplinary group of researchers exploring technological applications in the home. For more than a decade, new designs and technologies have been developed from a multidisciplinary perspective to understand the perception and use of ICTs in the homes of older adults and how interfaces and devices should be designed to enhance the acceptance of these technologies. Exemplar projects have focused on a number of topics, including technologies to support communication between family caregivers and older adults (The Digital Family Portrait) [1]; cognitive reminder systems for medication management (The Memory Mirror); cooking practices (The Cooks Collage) [2]; and assistive devices that coach individuals step-by-step through interacting with technological medical devices, such as a glucose meter (The Technology Coach) [3]. The projects demonstrate the use of noninvasive and state-of-art technologies like motion sensors and cameras to adapt to the needs of older adults without threatening the successful adoption of such technologies.

AHRI projects have benefitted from knowledge of the factors affecting seniors' technology adoption. The Human Factors and Aging Laboratory at Georgia Tech has been examining the psychological factors surrounding the adoption of technology by older adults. Through a series of research projects funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) through the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE), this group of engineering psychology researchers has conducted in-depth studies on how privacy, trust, perception, and acceptance of technologies play a role in adoption. Their findings have been influential to designers, from research universities and industry alike, aiming to improve successful adoption of ICTs intended for older adults [4].

New efforts in the area of aging both at Georgia Tech and its surrounding community have resulted in greater opportunities for multidisciplinary research. The Enterprise Innovation Institute began to develop outward-reaching relationships with retirement communities, developers, and other city, regional, and state organizations with a goal of more livable and sustainable design of such communities. These connections have built the foundation of a much richer research environment and encouraged other research domains to get involved.

The need for a more organized approach to address different aspects of aging resulted in the Design and Technology for Healthy Aging Initiative (DATHA). This initiative brings together researchers, industry, practitioners, and service providers to identify, develop, and implement new design and technologies that encourage healthy living for older adults. With efforts ranging from better community design to designing technologies for individuals aging in place, DATHA serves as a catalyst for a major shift in the way design and technology for older adults are conceptualized and implemented.

In the ICTs domain, DATHA's efforts have already begun through courses educating students from industrial design, architecture, applied psychology, and computer science to focus their research on the needs of the aging population. With support from Presbyterian Homes of Georgia, earlier educational courses concentrated on identifying the technological needs for Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) in the Atlanta area. Students considered many aspects of the CCRCs, including independent residents, assisted-living-facility residents, memory care residents, and health and community management. They were able to visit residents in the community and at their homes to document observations of their experience with ICTs to better design technological devices. Their process involved consulting with experts to produce an informed outcome resulted in 2-Link, a portable device focused on connecting community residents through scheduling, messaging, and photo sharing. The uniqueness of the concept was based on advancing technological solutions while considering the simplicity of the task. The concept offered the solution of a dual screen to physically represent the split between the personal side and the community side.

In addition to a number of lessons learned, the earlier courses served as evidence for the need to leverage the expertise available both at Georgia Tech and Emory University as well as within the CCRC to educate students on the convergence of aging, technology, design, and community. Moreover, it represented the first steps toward developing a comprehensive multidisciplinary effort of transgenerational education focused on responding to the real needs of older adults and a humane and inclusive approach to design within the technological realm.

An illustration of this concept is a recent project sponsored by the GVU Center and the Health Systems Institute (HSI). The Sympathetic Devices Project, a study of inclusion across housing options, aims to identify communication needs of older adults living independently across a range of housing options. More important, it seeks to design and develop inclusive communication devices to help older adults maintain personal and social connections. The project comprises an iterative series of applied action research studies to assess, inform, evaluate and implement the design of communication technology devices—sympathetic devices—for the aging population. The most interesting aspect of the research was how the students in the classroom and the aging community were unified in the process of assessing the state of technologies and identifying current infrastructures for rapid implementation and adoption of technologies. Through interviews and focus groups with older adults, students were able to understand: Specific needs related to isolation; that successful communication patterns can be defined by the amount and type of social activities; and the additional importance of intrapersonal communication—that is, the effectiveness of communicating with oneself.

Jitterbug cell phones, which are simple cell phones specifically designed for older adults, were one of the data-collection tools. Training sessions were held prior to the data collection. The most interesting finding over the course of the research was that older adults stayed in touch with the students after completing their research protocol. There was a natural and mutual interest in aiding the design process with communication by design. It was truly integrative evidence on how to design for inclusion and communication technologies. As a result of the interactions, affordable designs and everyday technological communication devices were created to fit the lives and preferences of older adults. A series of prototypes were developed using creatively simple technologies and interfaces to achieve everyday tasks. Concepts ranged from remembering (designing memory aids), eating (addressing the issue of eating alone), learning (developing e-learning tools), and moving (advancing incentive devices for activities). At the end of the process it became apparent that aesthetics and inclusive design indeed play a significant role in the design of a good technological system for older adults.

The major aspect of these educational efforts is the transition of research from investigator-initiated and technology-centered to a needs-driven, user-centered approach. In many of the aforementioned initiatives and courses, the projects have provided great opportunity not only for the community of interest to be integrated in the research outcome, but also to serve as educational tools for students to understand some of the aspects of designing technologies for older adults. This format of transgenerational education serves to advance the students' awareness of aging as well as the older adults' awareness of technology development. Research is crossing its practice boundaries by including the users, industry, and the classroom in a unified process. These groups have advanced a much-needed awareness to think differently about technologies and how they change who people are, what they can do, and translate lessons learned for our HCI community to more grounded and inclusive applications.

back to top  References

1. Mynatt, E. D., A.S. Melenhorst, A.D. Fisk, and W.A. Rogers. "Aware Technologies for Aging in Place: Understanding User Needs and Attitudes." IEEE Pervasive Computing 3, no. 2 (2004): 36–41.

2. Melenhorst, A.S., W.A. Rogers, and A.D. Fisk. "When Will Technology in the Home Improve the Quality of Life for Older Adults?" In New Dynamics in Old Age: Individual, Environmental, and Societal Perspectives, edited by H. W. Wahl, C. Tesch-Römer, and A. Hoff, 253–269. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing, 2007.

3. Rogers, W.A., I.A. Essa, and A.D. Fisk. "Designing a Technology Coach." Ergonomics in Design 15, no. 3 (2007): 17–23.

4. Fisk, A.D., W.A. Rogers, N. Charness, S.J. Czaja, and J. Sharit. Designing for Older Adults: Principles and Creative Human Factors Approaches (2nd ed.). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2009.

back to top  Authors

Brian Jones is the director of the Aware Home Research Initiative (AHRI) and a senior research engineer at the Interactive Media Technology Center (IMTC) at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His research interests include technologies—primarily in the home environment—to support healthy aging and aging-in-place with current focus on communication devices. Jones is also one of the cofounders of the Design and Technology for Healthy Aging initiative.

Claudia Rébola Winegarden is an assistant professor in industrial design at Georgia Tech. A native of Argentina, she holds a Ph.D. in information design, a master's of industrial design from North Carolina State University, and a bachelor's of industrial design from the Universidad Nacional de Cordoba. Her areas of expertise include industrial design, human-computer interaction, and communication studies. She applies a holistic and multidisciplinary approach toward inclusive design and the integration of physical objects with seamless technologies.

Wendy A. Rogers is a professor of psychology at Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research interests include cognitive aging, skill acquisition, human factors, and technology acceptance. She is codirector of the Human Factors and Aging Laboratory, funded by the National Institute on Aging through the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement. She is involved in the Aware Home Research Initiative and is the editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

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UF1Figure. The 2-Link device from Georgia Tech's DATHA Initiative.

UF2Figure. 2-Link allows residents in some of Atlanta's retirement communities to share schedules, messages, and photos.

back to top  Sidebar: For More Information:

The Digital Family Portrait (DFP)

The Memory Mirror

Cooks Collage

The Technology Coach


Human Factors and Aging Lab

Aware Home Research Initiative

Design and Technology for Healthy Aging (DATHA)

Presbyterian Homes of Georgia


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©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0700  $10.00

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