How Surveillance Technology Can Keep Older People in Their Homes for Longer

Surveillance technology is raising privacy concerns around Australia but it may also allow older people to stay in their own homes for longer.

Chris Ketts is the primary carer for her 87-year-old mother, Jean Johnston, despite living in a different state.

Without texting or calling, Ms Ketts knows if her mother has opened her container of epilepsy medication or if she hasn’t left the lounge room for a while.

And although she is more than 300 kilometres away, Ms Ketts knows the moment her mother gets out of bed.

The technology which has enabled Ms Ketts to keep a virtual eye on her mother includes a hub and small motion sensors installed in Ms Johnston’s Howlong unit in southern New South Wales.

“I can go in and have a look any time and I know where she is and how she’s going,” Ms Ketts said.

In her Melbourne home, Ms Ketts uses an app to find out where there is motion in her mother’s unit — the set-up does not act as a camera or generate an image, but indicates where activity is occurring.

“If she goes into a room and spends quite a bit of time in there I get an alert just in case she’s had a fall or something,” Ms Ketts said.

When Ms Ketts’ sister, who was living near their mother and was her primary carer, moved overseas — the family was faced with a difficult decision.

“I felt that if she went into a nursing home she would probably deteriorate, she’d become institutionalised a little bit and we didn’t want that to happen and she didn’t want that to happen,” Ms Ketts said.

The risk

Staying at home wasn’t going to be an easy road for the family to take.

“The problem was, with the distance, just keeping an eye on her and she’s starting to lose her memory so we were a bit concerned about how she was going to cope on her own,” Ms Ketts said.

“She’s got epilepsy so she’s got medication which needs to be taken at a regular time each day.”

They decided to trial the new system, which draws on burglar alarm technology and includes a hub, with an alert to remind Ms Johnston to take her medication.

Sensors on the medication drawer let Ms Ketts know when her mother has accessed it.

“Initially I thought she might feel like Big Brother’s watching with all the sensors,” Ms Ketts said.

“But they’re so unobtrusive she doesn’t really even realise that they’re there.”

Ms Ketts said neither she nor her mother had privacy concerns with the system.

What else is out there?

University of Melbourne biomedical informatics researcher Frank Smolenaers said there were other products making their way into aged care, including other in-home hubs, wearables and 3D fall-detection sensors.

“Essentially it looks like a camera, but it’s not,” Mr Smolenaers said.

“Should a patient look like they’re deteriorating and may fall or they actually do have a fall, then the idea of the system is the algorithm would detect that and send an alert.”

Mr Smolenaers said the new products would not replace jobs but would ease the existing pressure on aged care providers.

“I think the crisis is around having enough doctors, nurses and beds in hospital and aged care facilities because of our dramatically ageing population,” he said.

Irene Cayas, acting president of Older People Speak Out, an advocacy group for Australian seniors, said nothing could replace the human touch.

“We need to care,” Ms Cayas said.

“We don’t care any more — everyone’s become a number, a statistic.

“Technology, what? The nurses have so much access to technology, they’re knowledgeable people, they’re professionals. We need to show them that they’re worth more money because they are.

“What they do the average person can’t do,” she said.

But Ms Ketts said the new products could have a real impact on the industry.

“I think it’s going to change and give people more choices,” Ms Ketts said.

“Particularly with the recent news reports on aged care facilities and the lack of care in some of them — I think people will be looking for other alternatives and people are much better if they are kept in their own homes: emotionally, socially, and health-wise they’re much better.

“It’s just had such a positive effect on her self-esteem and her ability to operate as an independent person.”

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