Wearable Activity Trackers for Carers and those they care for

Photos from the workshop at Carers Milton Keynes offices in Central Milton Keynes (photos taken by Dr. Duncan Banks), February 2017

Wearable activity trackers (e.g. wrist-bands from Fitbit or Jawbone, or smart watches from Apple or Samsung), track daily fitness levels such as heart rate, sleep patterns, or calories expended. We have been exploring the potential of this kind of device for carers and the people they care for.

Project details

As a part of a project funded by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust, The Open University has worked with Carers MK (Milton Keynes) to run a survey and subsequently a workshop with some of the participants from the survey. Our aim was to ask the opinions of carers about using digital health wearables (whether or not they already use them). Their inputs will help us to understand whether and how wearables could be effectively used if they became a part of healthcare: caring, monitoring and self-management of health.

Observations from the data

From a preliminary analysis of the data we have made some initial observations:

For carers: Carers may not sleep well or may not get the chance to go out for a walk or a run, but may not realise that they haven’t had a lot of physical activity during the day. Walking has been shown to improve mental performance and reduce cognitive decline as we age, and our previous research showed that walking with others can help reduce social isolation and loneliness. Carers in this study said they would find devices useful to monitor their own health and activity – specifically, their sleep patterns and level of activity.

For people they care for: Carers felt that activity monitors could also be useful for the people that they care for. In the survey, carers mentioned interest in data about the person they cared for including: sleep patterns, calories expended, a map of the area walked and distance and steps walked, activity data over a period of time, heart rate, UV exposure, data that shows some movement has taken place, and warning that a condition is deteriorating for some reason. A carer in the workshop mentioned concern about monitoring the weight of her daughter because of her health condition. 

The carers felt that people who are being cared for could feel in control of their health and well-being through using such devices to monitor: exercise levels, dietary needs, sleep patterns, reminders for medications, and reminders to move. They might also get a sense of safety and confidence from being able to track the whereabouts of their carer; and a sense of security (‘security knowing that [their] condition was monitored for deterioration so that they didn’t have to remember or make contact’).

Caring or monitoring at a distance: Carers discussed the advantage of being able to monitor well-being from a distance, e.g. if they don’t live together, if the carer or the person being cared for has gone out for an errand or a walk - ‘to monitor health in a low-key way that is not intrusive and give them independence to cope when they are doing well’.

Concerns about these devices: However, carers expressed concerns about the use of such devices. These devices seldom cater for accessibility and age-related impairments, such as those associated with memory, vision, dexterity. They generally require interfacing with Tablets or smart-phones for transfer and display of data and some need charging every day. So, there are technical requirements and usability barriers for optimal use of these devices. Carers were also concerned about the people being cared for and themselves not knowing how to make sense of the data from these devices – and whether this data may ‘create confusion and unnecessary worry’

Carers were concerned that if the person being cared for is very old, there might be issues about their ability to use such devices, to remember to wear them and to make use of them for self-monitoring. Motivation to use a wearable might be a problem.

The data from these devices, although not always accurate, provides useful trends on the activity levels and sleep patterns which may influence people to change their life styles. The data collected over a period of time may provide useful insights to healthcare professionals.

Participation in the survey

If you are a carer and are interested in contributing to this research, please visit this link https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/health-wearables-for-the-person-being-cared-for or http://bit.ly/2iN4YSd to participate in this survey. The survey will take 6-8 minutes to complete.

The university’s Human Research Ethics Committee has approved this research. If you have any questions about the project or the survey, please contact Professor Shailey Minocha: shailey.minocha@open.ac.uk

Contributors to this strand of research on carers

Mrs. Sue Bowering and Mr. Robert Benn, Carers MK (Milton Keynes)

Professor Shailey Minocha, Dr Caroline Holland, Dr Duncan Banks, Ms. Catherine McNulty and Dr. Ana-Despina Tudor, The Open University, UK

This project (May 2016 - April 2017) has been funded by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust. The views expressed in this article are those of the project team and not necessarily those of the Trust.