In this post, I’m going to temporarily ignore the obvious. At the moment, there’s a certain amount of friction between older people and current technology and bridging this gap will take effort. However, regardless of the outcome, we face another somewhat more elusive challenge: what if it doesn’t matter?
As we see more and more elderly cope with modern technologies, one can’t help but wonder if this is due to increased efforts from society or due to changes in (the mindset of) the senior citizens themselves.
There exist numerous studies concerning learning capabilities and age (in fact, my previous message discussed a similar study), but I’m going to focus this post on a classic paper within cognitive psychology: “Age Differences in Skill Acquisition and Transfer in an Implicit Learning Paradigm” (see reference at the bottom of this post).
A quote from this text postulates my thesis more clearly than I myself ever could:
“Younger subjects showed greater levels of transfer to the unfamiliar context (…) they (older subjects) failed to show any transfer at all when the transfer task was from a different semantic domain.”
The elderly certainly are capable of learning new information, but fail to convert new skills to applications in a slightly different domain. To be more precise, they won’t make use of their newly acquired facts when learning new tasks.
This adaptability is in fact a valuable commodity that diminishes with age. This is also the main reason why young children (up to 6-8 years old) seem to have fewer difficulties when learning new languages. Basic previously acquired grammatical concepts are being used to gain knowledge about a new language, which speeds up the learning process.
The idea I’m gradually formulating here, is the following:
While every effort to allow the elderly to make use of technology that will improve their quality of life should be considered, in the end all of these measures will be of a temporary sort. Younger generations are currently using computers as an extension of their bodies and can’t imagine a world without them. When these individuals reach that certain age, they won’t need their grandchildren to tell them how to send an email or order something online. Regardless of the urge of the current senior citizens to buy a cell phone, in 50 years everyone will know how to use them.
Furthermore, instructing older people in the use of a certain appliance won’t make a significant difference when you’re teaching them to use another.
In conclusion, it’s clear older people should be encouraged to make – indeed be commended for their – use of technology. It on itself opens new doors for patient care and social possibilities. It would however be unwise to believe the senior citizens of the future will necessarily meet the same hurdles in their quest for understanding.
Reference: “Age Differences in Skill Acquisition and Transfer in an Implicit Learning Paradigm”, by Carole Myers and Mark Conner. Published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Sep/Oct92, Vol. 6 Issue 5, p429