Demographic changes mean that people are now living longer, but increasing length of life also raises the potential for increased dependency in the later years of life. The ability of older people to remain in their own homes and lead a life commensurate with their capacity and potential as they become more dependent is a function of the complex interrelationship of many factors. These factors include: the extent of disability and functional impairment, the support of family carers, the availability of community-based services and the accessibility of these services to people who need them. The application of existing and new technologies to some of these areas has the potential to enhance the independence, and ultimately the well-being, of older individuals and increase their probability for remaining in their own homes within the community.

By observing people ‘in their natural habitat’, the use of ethnography in technology research helps to identify what they find easy, what they find difficult, what would assist them day to day and how their needs can be supported by judicious interventions and devices. Ethnography uses anthropological and observational techniques to answer questions such as ‘what do people really want’, and ‘would a particular product find mass acceptance’. But it also reflects a philosophical foundation, particularly in respect of the TRIL Centre research programme, that research must have real-world impact, must change people’s lives and must have value and application beyond the laboratory.

The work of the ethnographic team based at NUI Galway will inform the design, implementation and usability of new technologies developed for older people. Ethnographic information provides guidance and feedback to the engineers and scientists who design and produce the new technologies and to the older people who use the new technologies. The Irish Centre of Social Gerontology (ICSG) will unite the various engineering and design strands of the TRIL Centre through enhanced multidisciplinary information systems that link design to application, with a personalised focus on the experiences of older people in their own space and place.