Sensors & Sensibility: How In-Home Sensors Monitor Older Adults’ Everyday Abilities

It’s 2015 and sensors are everywhere! Fitbits, Apple Watches, and sleep monitors abound. For those of us who like to keep track of our every move, these devices are a godsend. But the future of sensors may include tracking the moves of older adults in order to help them stay in their homes.

Many older adults hope to never move into a retirement community, and instead bank on staying in their own homes as they age. This can sometimes prove difficult, especially for individuals battling multiple chronic conditions. Seemingly simple daily activities like cooking and using the phone can be wrought with new challenges in later life. What’s more, older adults who feel embarrassed or ashamed of their new challenges may choose to hide mistakes and inabilities from friends and family members from fear of losing more of their independence.

Enter monitors of IADLs, or instrumental activities of daily life. These monitors can track everyday activities, observing and measuring the wearer’s activities in a more objective way than has been possible in the past. This is important because they bypass the bias that has historically been introduced by observations of IADLs that were self-reported.

In a recent article published in Pers Ubiqui Comput, the authors describe the capabilities and utility of some of the newer sensor technology available to older adults.  These include devices that track medication usage, phone sensors that log misdialed numbers, and sensors built into kitchen tools like coffeemakers that can track how well older adults are able to carry out the multistep sequence of cooking.

Using intensive case study methodology, the authors examined the utility of these new devices. Their preliminary results suggest that sensor technology can be used to increase and monitor self-awareness so that older adults can age well and remain independent to their full capacity. Specifically, the authors developed a suite of sensors called dwellSense to monitor activities commonly performed by independent older adults. These sensors were placed in the home of two older adults for 10 months. Following the data collection period, the older adults were interviewed about the experience and presented with summary findings about their personal data. Once it was clear that the two individuals understood their data, they were asked to reflect on their findings and verbalize their thought process after taking in the data.

Based on the objective sensor data and the interview data, the authors found support for the notion that sensors can be used to support self-awareness in older adults.  More specifically, at the beginning of the case studies, both participants were relatively confident that they took their pills as scheduled. However, only one of the participants was correct when making that statement; the data showed her medication-taking to be somewhat erratic. Thus, the data, when presented to both participants, was able to increase their self-awareness. The individual who thought she took her pills on time and was correct could now have more confidence in her self-assessment going forward; and the participant who was not as self-aware also had data to help her gain a better understanding of herself.

Taken as a whole, these sensors provide a myriad of data for physicians, family members and friends, and the older adult in question, to more accurately judge how independent an older adult can be on a day-to-day basis.

Clearly, observations of daily living collected via sensor technology hold great promise for today’s older adults who want to remain independent for a lot longer than was possible in previous generations. The rate of speed at which these sensors are developing is high; and, we can only expect to see a lot more useful technology for older adults pop up in the coming years.


Lee M.C and Dey AK. Sensor-based observation of daily living for aging in place. Pers Ubiquit Comput (2015); 19: 27–45.


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