Sensor Monitoring: Sense of Safety or Invasion of Privacy?

A growing number of technologies are being developed for older adults to assist in their efforts to live independently and to assist in the early detection of declines in daily functioning. Among the most promising of these technologies is in-home sensor monitoring. These systems comprise unobtrusive sensors installed in a home that continuously track and record the movements of residents. The data collected by these sensors can be used to detect emergencies such as falls and to notify authorities, as well as to track movement patterns over time and flag early warning signs of decline in daily functioning.

However, there remains the important question of how such technologies are perceived by older adults. Are these sensors a “Big Brother” invasion of privacy, or welcomed as a useful tool? A recent qualitative study in the Gerontologist examines the perspectives of community-dwelling older adults who agreed to have such sensors installed in their homes for a few months.

The participants in this study were between the ages of 68 to 94 and all lived alone in either a senior residence or in the community. The sensor system employed included motion sensors, sensors measuring the opening of doors and cabinets, and a toilet flush sensor. The data from these sensors is then analyzed by software that could detect emergencies as well as patterns of daily functioning. No video or sound recording was involved.

Overall, all participants reported that sensor monitoring gave them a sense of safety in their homes, especially because they lived alone. One participant described the sensors as “watchdogs” that look after him. There were two main components to this sense of safety: one was the ability of the sensors to detect emergencies; the other was the ability of the systems to detect a decline in daily functioning. Since declines in daily functioning can be gradual, participants reported worrying about not noticing subtle signs of decline that the sensors could detect.

The participants in this study did not perceive this sensor system as an invasion of their privacy; some stated that they felt this way because no cameras or sound recordings were used. One participant stated, “You can only see that I am moving, but not what I am doing.” However, some participants suggested that they might be uncomfortable with a sensor in the bedroom if they were not living alone and had a romantic partner. It should also be noted that some relatives of the participants expressed concerns about participants’ privacy, worrying that “others would know more than necessary.” But overall, the participants and their relatives considered that some loss of privacy was worth the benefits of the system in supporting their ability to live independently.

The participants also reported positive responses to the system being unobtrusive and user-friendly. Visually, the sensors didn’t draw attention to themselves, and weren’t considered visually unappealing. Participants praised the sensor system as not attracting the attention of visitors as a sensor tracking system, with visitors most often thinking that the sensors were common devices like a smoke detector. Additionally, the sensor systems were praised for not requiring any technical knowledge or actions on the part of the users.

The main area in which opinions of the participants were split was on having access to the sensor data on their daily functioning. Some felt that they might not understand this data, but others reported not wanting to see the data because they did not want to think about their health problems. Other participants felt that having access to their data would positively influence them to pay more attention to their movement and need for physical exercise. Participants were also split on whether they wanted their children to have access to the data collected by these sensors.

While overall the participants viewed the sensors as valuable in supporting their ability to live independently, the study does raise some points that will need to be addressed when discussing or implementing such systems with older adults. These points include specifying what exactly is being recorded, because participants drew a strong distinction between sensors and audio/video recording. It also appears to be important to gauge the interest of each sensor system user in tracking his or her own behavior. Additionally, concerns of both participants and family members need to be addressed.


Pol M, van Nes F, van Hartingsveldt M, et al. Older people’s perspectives regarding the use of sensor monitoring in their home. The Gerontologist. (2014). DOI: 10.1093/geront/gnu104

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