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Does today’s tech alienate the elderly?

Laurie Orlov

Laurie M. Orlov, a tech industry veteran, writer, speaker, and certified long-term care ombudsman, is founder of Aging in Place Technology Watch, covering technologies and related services that enable boomers and seniors to remain longer in their home of choice.


Listening to professors talk about computers and the elderly.

For the past 2 Thursdays, I’ve listened to ASA webinars with two professors from Pace University talking about their ‘intergenerational computing gerontechnology program’ — fine-tuned over time to engage college students at Pace University in technology service-learning projects. These involve training older adults — many in nursing homes — to use computers for-mail, photo attachments, video chat, web searching and online shopping. Professors Jean Coppola and Barbara Thomas conducted grant-funded research studies around these semester-long training programs (ratio of 1 student to 2 seniors) to assess changes in both the seniors and in the attitudes towards aging of the students. The curriculum they have developed and outcome measurements includes both the age sensitivity training for the college students as well as outcome measures of older adult participants. For seniors, measured outcomes included improved motor skills, self-confidence, eye-hand coordination, and reduction in depression and tendencies towards isolation.

No surprise, their research uncovered barriers to using mice and keyboards.

What if you’d never used a mouse, didn’t know how to double-click, couldn’t really see the letters on keyboards, had to review multiple options and steps to engage in a video chat, and were confounded by passwords or difficulty with finding specific applications? What if you had to look at some of today’s ad-filled, cluttered screens to figure out what to do next?
For your amusement, I have provided a link to the British PCPro and this particular post that mulls over the question of how today’s tech alienates the elderly – the web page is Exhibit A underpinning an emphatic ‘YES!’ Given the context from the Pace professors’ presentation, that home screen with the article sandwiched into 1/3 or less of the screen’s real estate, no kidding about whether as the presenters noted, ‘Many computer screens are cluttered & busy’ and ‘Applications are hard to find.’ Hard to find? Add to that joke of a screen is the CDC web page for ‘Older Adults’ (really!). You are challenged to find the ‘interactive tool’ to help you find services based on your age or a link about arthritis. No cheating by searching the page, either. And this is the ‘Center for Disease Control’!

How to translate this intergenerational program beyond Pace.

The presenters were particularly impressed by the new Telikin computer — they seem to have formed a partnership with the startup company. But professors Coppola and Thomas also involved the students in refurbishing older computers, designing input devices, adapting for hearing loss and visual limitations, as well as using grants to hire students to do data analysis and collection. If you’d like to see more about what the Pace profs are doing, Sherri Snelling is hosting an upcoming Retirement Living TV broadcast that will feature their work on June 9 on Handle with Care. Professors Coppola and Thomas were asked if this CCRC program could be extended outside the campus of CCRCs — yes, they said. It could be offered as a lifelong learning class or delivered in adult day programs, senior centers or retirement-focused organizations — but programs must entice seniors to attend the full program to justify the continuing involvement of the college students.

So back to the technology itself and whether it alienates.

I love this sentence from the PCPro article: “We’ve been getting older people to use things like the Apple iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab. With both Apple and Android – they are much easier than trying to learn to use a PC, but you do get to a point where you have to understand iconography.” Uh, yeah, no kidding. The key words in that quote are ‘We’ve been getting older people to use…” Just like the students in the Pace program, interested and engaged trainers are required. Motivated high school or college students could be great to help (and an eye opener to young trainers) for those who have never used any tech device. Young trainers could help seniors become comfortable, whether it is with a mouse, a touch display, an ad-cluttered web page, a search engine, or those teeny-tiny icons on tablets and smart phones. In fact, the ‘smart’ aspect of these products is really an oxymoron — let’s hope that the next 2-3 revisions pump up the smarts about screen touch sensitivity, icon placement and cutsy-ness. For seniors, boomers and even juniors, standing mesmerized on a street corner trying to respond to a text message is an invitation to fall down a manhole — in more ways than one.

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