My Placement: Empowering Older Adults with Technology Through the ExtraCare Smart Market Initiative

post by Angela Higgins (2022 cohort)

Technology may help older adults maintain independence and live healthier lives, however there is a belief that this population is completely unable or unwilling to embrace these interventions. My work considers how we may empower people using technology, so when given the placement opportunity to work directly with older people trying out technology, I was eager to accept. My placement with my PhD industry partner, ExtraCare Charitable Trust, was split into several weeklong activities from autumn 2023 to spring 2024.

ExtraCare Charitable Trust is the UK’s leading not-for-profit provider of retirement housing, for people over 55. Their stated mission is “creating sustainable communities that provide homes older people want, lifestyles they can enjoy and care if it’s needed”. As such they encourage active and independent living and provide their residents with opportunities and activities to promote healthy ageing.

The Smart Market scheme is run by ExtraCare to allow their residents to try before they buy a range of technologies, along with set-up support. Older people may benefit from the use of appropriate technology to support independence and manage their well-being. However, there are many perceived barriers to entry, including usability, usefulness, and cost. To negate some of these factors, the Smart Markets allow residents to trial smart devices, including Amazon Echo and Alexa products, Ring doorbells, smart plugs, smart lights, sleep tracking mats, and Fitbits.

I ran Smart Markets at two ExtraCare sites, Lark Hill in Nottingham, and Reeve Court in St Helens, Merseyside (which just so happens to be my hometown). At both locations, the Smart Market was announced at the monthly village meeting, followed by a “Demo Day”, allowing the residents to drop in and ask questions alongside demonstrations. Then, to encourage further uptake, two “Market Days” were conducted where I set up a “market stall” in a common thoroughfare at the villages for two hours on subsequent mornings. At both the Demo and Market days residents could either take the smart device themselves, if they felt comfortable setting it up, or book an installation appointment. After 6-8 weeks I returned to collect the device they’d trialled. I also interviewed some of the residents about their experience with the Smart Market, and their use of technology more generally, to produce a report to assist ExtraCare with their future provision of technology services for their residents.

Through being present in the community, I was able to meet and chat with many of the residents at each location, and met a wide range of people, with different interest levels in technology. Some people already owned a full suite of gadgets, and some had no interest in technology whatsoever. However, quite a few were interested in trying things out but were either concerned about the cost or had no one to help set them up. These people were my main Smart Markets “customers”, and I was able to answer their questions and help them decide on some technology that was useful for them. If they required the help, I then booked them in for an installation appointment where I would come to their property and get them started. Finally, some people stopped by the Smart Market events not to try out a new product, but because they were having issues with technology they already owned. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to assist everyone who needed it, but I tried to help wherever I could.

I found installing the technology with residents a joyful and insightful process. Having spent some time in the communities, this gave me a chance to get to know the individuals a little better. Residents all had unique needs, challenges, and aspirations when it came to using technology, and I tried to work with them to set-up the technology. Examples include someone who wanted to try and Fitbit because her doctor had recommended it for health monitoring, someone else wanted a smart plug to avoid having to bend down to switch a light on and off, and another woman wanted to try and Echo Show to display photographs taken by her husband. Before I left, I handed residents a guide to the features of their device and asked them if they had any specific desires from using the device. If possible, I’d set up any services or systems they’d like, such as favourite radio stations, or connections to other apps. I believe that if we are to encourage people to use technology, it should be for purposes they find useful or enjoyable, so having sometime to spend with individuals was invaluable. I was even invited to speak at a retiree’s lunch club by one of the residents, which was a new experience for me, but a very pleasant one!

After the trial period, I returned to collect the devices, and setup the new devices if residents had bought replacements. Some residents agreed to an interview about how they’d found the device, and if they were buying their own. As well as providing direct feedback to ExtraCare about the Smart Markets, I could also provide insight into how residents used technology. Often more technologically competent residents would support their friends and others in the village with their devices. Additionally, many of my interviewees had extensive experience with technology prior to retiring, and did enjoy using it, even if there was the odd difficulty!

The main difficulty I encountered during my placement was with scheduling. As I split this research into separate sections (between sites, and between the different stages of research) often I could not achieve everything I wanted within the allocated time. Sometimes this was due to scheduling conflicts between myself and the residents, sometimes due to conflicts with other responsibilities I had, and sometimes just because life events prevented everything from going to plan. However, this emphasised to me the importance of flexibility and slack time when conducting research.

Overall, I found my time spent at Lark Hill and Reeve Court thought-provoking and inspiring, and will help me develop my future work with older adults. I was able to build relationships within the community, which is especially useful as I will be conducting more research at Lark Hill, and get in-person experience of how older adults were using technology. I especially learnt a lot about outdated and ageist stereotypes at work in the assumptions people have when designing for or researching with this community.  This work has proved valuable to my PhD and I hope ExtraCare have found my work beneficial to facilitate their residents to use technology to stay happy and healthy.