For the past few months, my fellow students and I have tried to (dis)prove the statement mentioned in the title above. In the following paragraphs, I’d like to summarize some of the results while simultaneously having a closer look at a few of them, considering the knowledge gained in the process. There are four important words in the statement: elderly, eager, technology and facilitate. Each of these loosely ties in with a certain subject discussed on the blog and each will be analyzed in no particular order.
While technology is commonly perceived as a high-tech solution involving electronics among other things, it can be surprisingly simple. Examples of technology include grab bars or a frying pan just as well as a calculator or a notebook. It’s often opportune to simplify your hardware in order to reduce costs, increase durability and facilitate the ease of use (although there are other solutions as will be discussed later on). While this is not a major subject of the blog, it deserves recognition all the same.
Different people have widely different views on the definition of this term, which is one of the main reasons technological improvement often misses the mark when it comes to a certain demographic. Specifically in this case, there’s a difference between what elderly perceive as a useful advancement compared to younger generations. There exists a plethora of examples – like mobile phones, computers or microwave ovens – where a discrepancy between opinions is prevalent. While the younger citizens are unable to function without any of these, many older citizens refuse to use them, even going as far as ignoring the technology when it’s presented to them. This clearly shows it’s not a matter of price on its own, but a certain disdain for technology. As I postulated in the section above, this is in no way limited to high-tech appliances: people of a respectable age are just as likely to refuse a wheelchair or a walking cane.
Three main reasons for this refusal can be discerned. First of all, elderly most often like to retain some measure of independence. By using a walking cane, they appear old and crippled while a mobile phone makes it easy to check up on them, making some feel restricted. While this kind of behaviour can be considered irrational, all people (not just some elderly) suffer from this to a certain extent. It’s also easy to see the risks these technologies might create. If you could for instance buy a robot that makes sure your grandparents are well fed, you might be less inclined to check up on them. Social isolation is an all too common result of the modern age, which makes elderly stay on their own more often, thus resulting in more isolation. This especially becomes an issue when mobility is concerned. However, when the senior citizens do not accept technology, they’re often deemed too time-consuming, resulting in them being transferred to a home or nursery, which evades the issue itself. When elderly are unable to provide for themselves, they’re dependent on technology. If they refuse to use technology, someone else will use it for them.
The second reason is a recognizable one: the senior citizens don’t “get it”. They do not see the value of the technology presented. Why should they learn to type an email if they can just as well write a letter? Why should they take a mobile phone with them when they go out, since they’re perfectly capable of finding their way back home on their own? The best solution here is often the one of the easiest: educate them. When there’s a certain advantage to an appliance, enlightening the person you wish to make use of it sounds like an easy enough solution. If the technology is indeed as valuable as you think, you might just change their mind. It is however important to re-evaluate your own opinion on the matter. It’s ineffective to try to force someone to use technology they truly don’t need. More often than not, the elderly need a certain urge to use the appliances for this strategy to be effective. There is of course always a risk that the idea proposed above backfires and the senior citizens revert to a defensive mode (reason one) or fail to use the technology altogether (reason three).
This immediately introduced the third reason: inability. Some elderly want to make use of technology, but fail when it comes down to it. This is most often the case with high-tech applications as the learning curve is regrettably a lot higher in these cases. Contrary to popular belief, this seems to be less of an issue if enough motivation is present. Studies – like the one by Ulrike Pfeil, Raj Arjan and Panayiotis Zaphiris on Age differences in online social networking – A study of user profiles and the social capital divide among teenagers and older users in MySpace – claim that the skill barrier isn’t harder to cross for elderly compared to younger people. There is however a difference in levels of transfer (a term coined by Carole Myers and Mark Conner in Age Differences in Skill Acquisition and Transfer in an Implicit Learning Paradigm). This means that older citizens have greater difficulty in using skills from other domains in a new task. This level of transfer decreases with age and is one of the reasons young children have an easier time learning a new language once they know the basics of their mother tongue.
One of the most promising new philosophies that, among other things, deal with the latter two of these reasons, is ubiquitous computing (Poslad, Stefan (2009), Ubiquitous Computing Smart Devices, Smart Environments and Smart Interaction). This describes a state of technology where the inner workings of applications aren’t noticeable, or to explain more formally using a quote from Human–computer interaction issues for mobile computing in a variable work context by J. York and P.C. Pendharkar:
“machines that fit the human environment instead of forcing humans to enter theirs”
By removing the inner layers from sight, technology gains a new level of acceptance and ease of use. Ideally, one wouldn’t be able to realize he/she is making use of technology at all. Wireless networks and nanotechnology are some of the few integrated techniques that are sure to receive a lot more attention in the future, lowering the bar for elderly (and indeed all users) to make use of modern appliances.
This term has been integrated into the previous section; however I’d like to briefly elaborate on the subject. While motivation is an incredibly important aspect of every learning process, it’s not as easy to manipulate, especially in the case of the elderly. Studies like Shopping orientation segmentation of the elderly consumer by J. R. Lumpkin, show that senior citizens are more rigid to change and less inclined to purchase new products. While this type of behaviour is difficult to change, it’s important to facilitate the learning process as much as possible. Elderly who wish to cope with new technology have to be encouraged to do so and should be assisted if necessary. This may include techniques like gerontechnology, Elderly Computers or ubiquitous computing as defined in the previous section.
Last, but certainly not least, it’s important to evaluate this final term. While the word ‘elderly’ seems easy enough to comprehend, there’s one significant aspect that has been discussed at length on the blog: the younger generations of today are the elderly of tomorrow. A common misconception in the (economic) world is that every individual generation wants to be treated as such, yet they plan the future like the next generation will be no different from the current. In the context of this subject, it’s important to realize that the issues affecting the current generation of senior citizens might be different from those affecting the future generations. This has a few interesting implications.
For one, the addiction to technology of the current younger generations might come back to haunt them later on. For most people, it has become impossible to function without the use of a computer or a mobile phone. When cognitive and motor functions start degrading, the use of these applications might become more difficult, leading to issues when dealing with the new technologies of that day and age. But other appliances like elevators are also common practice. These might for example further degrade mobility by offering an easy way out for elderly struggling with their motor functions.
These are all relatively minor concerns however, as the real issue is clear: adapting technology to older people might not be as effective. Younger generations can type a message on their mobile phone in a few seconds. It’s not infeasible to state that their issues with mobile phones in the future will be less prevalent or even non-existent. The elderly of tomorrow will face their own challenges regarding the new technologies that are developed at that time. Thus a more in-depth solution is required, a solution that instead of “fixing” technology that wasn’t properly designed for the elderly, creates technology useable by all from the get-go. Ubiquitous computing immediately springs to mind as a possible alternative. By removing the user interface and integrating the technology in our daily lives, changes might be turned into a more gradual process. This becomes all the more important when one realizes the rate, at which new technology gets introduced, is only increasing. If we then consider the fact that future senior citizens will retain a lot of their appliances and habits from their younger days, it quickly becomes clear that the elderly of the future will have to deal with a large amount of information. Some might even state we’re talking about an excessive amount, as the same limitations (level of transfer among others) will still apply. Will the elderly of the future be able to relinquish some of their technology in order to adapt to new applications or do old habits die hard indeed?
Are the elderly eager to use technology that will facilitate their lives? To an extent, they certainly are, so in that case the answer has to be a clear “yes”. However, it’s important to keep in mind that “facilitate” is a word with many facets, some which differ greatly in meaning depending on who you’re asking. Not all technology strictly makes things easier, especially when you consider the many maintenance and repair duties that come along with it. In a way, senior citizens are already using technology in their lives today. However new ideas and appliances are often met with resistance and rigidity, especially from the elderly. When all is said and done, motivation is still a necessary component that can’t be ignored. While encouragement and ease of use might convince some older people to make a leap of fate, their inherent lack of change will still remain a bump along the way. And that is of course where it all comes down to in the end. The most important word used in the title of this statement is without a doubt “their”, whoever “they” will be in the future.