Technical Difficulties for the Aging Community (by Casey Glatfelter)

When thinking of discrimination, ageism is not typically the first type that comes to mind, but it is likely the one that the most people have been affected by in their lifetime.  Passing judgement on a person based solely on their age is a problem that faces every cohort during many phases of their lifetime, but one of the age ranges most affected by it is older adults.  Some of the stereotypes they face involve being slow in their understanding, or stubborn and set in their old ways, making them unwilling to try new things as the world progresses.  These ideas overlap with the notion that the older adult population does not understand how to use technology.  Perhaps this a reality for some, but the problem may be more with the perceptions put upon the expectations of the aging community’s abilities or with the technology itself more than it is with the aptitude of the population using it.

While the idea that older adults are more impaired than their younger counterparts when it comes to technology may hold some validity, it is this worry of stereotype threat that may keep older adults from showing more interest in the first place.  With there being such a negative image regarding older adults and technology, many may worry that if they attempt to use a device they are unfamiliar with and do not understand it, they will only be further contributing to the negative stereotype.  In a meta-analysis study, 37 articles were reviewed to help further understand how performance was affected for older adults when performing tasks while being primed by age-based stereotype threats.  Through this study, it was reinforced that there was a correlation between stereotype threat and performance (Lamont, Swift, & Abrams, 2015).  It was also shown that the stereotype threat made a larger negative impact on older adults’ performance than those based on facts (Lamont et al., 2015).  Given that Lamont et al. (2015) also note that older adults generally are aware of the stereotypes that their age range face, one could argue that most would be cognizant of the notion that the older generations are not as technologically savvy as the younger ones.  Getting past the fear of age-based stereotype threat may be the first step to understanding that it does not have to be an issue to begin with.

Another potential issue with older adults’ use of technology is that it is not often tailored toward them.  Although older adults might not be at the top of the list of potential consumers when designing new technologies, it may be this factor that results in what ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  When older adults’ technological needs and desires are not taken into consideration, they are then much less likely to invest in such items.  Technological barriers for this cohort come in both physical and cognitive forms (Zhou, Rau, & Salvendy, 2014).  Those who face more difficulties visually and auditorily may struggle more with small font sizes or background noise.  The simple ability to increase the font size may not be enough to fix the problem, however, as it then requires the user to scroll down the page more frequently, making the reading less accessible (Zhou et al., 2014).  Due to these issues, a study was performed in China to further understand older adults’ requirements when it comes to mobile phones and other technical devices.  For this study, 351 adults ranging in age from 55 to 83 were given a questionnaire to help determine the factors they found most important.  Ten factors were discovered as being relevant to older adults’ interest and acceptance of new devices.  From these, it was indicated that although age may play a part in older adults’ acceptance of a new device, it did not necessarily correlate with their reception of new functions (Zhou et al., 2014).  Another study found that when it came to computer usage, most were focused on tasks that immediately benefitted them, such as downloading music or opening email (Seals, Canton, Agarwal, Doswell, & Thomas, 2008).  Many were less enthusiastic about a task if they were not aware what it was used for or how it was going to help them (Seals et al., 2008).  The conclusions from this study included that there is not necessarily an aversion to technology in older adults, but that they are more interested in technology that has a sense of familiarity and could enhance activities that they are already doing (Seals et al., 2008).  It was also concluded that usability played a large part in the interest in technology and the willingness to learn more about it (Seals et al., 2008).

As found in the study by Zhou et al. (2014), one of the factors that contributed to the older adults’ desire to use technology was social influence.  A Japanese study aimed to further the previous research on technology use by the aging community and focus especially on the ways people learn to use it (Mori & Harada, 2010).  In the study, 11 older adults with no prior mobile phone usage were asked to use a phone for three weeks and have their usage monitored. These 11 were split into two groups based on their familiar living structure, with six participants living only with their spouse, and the other five living in a household with children and grandchildren present in addition to their spouse (Mori & Harada, 2010).  Although there was not a significant difference in the number of calls and texts, numbers stored or photos taken between the two groups, there was a stark difference in the learning of basic functions and use of advanced functions favoring the group with grandchildren (Mori & Harada, 2010).  This study gives way to the idea that perhaps it is not an unwillingness to learn that keeps older adults from technology, but a lack of resources to help them learn.  Younger generations have grown up with the benefit of being surrounded by technology for their whole life, making them much more familiar with how devices operate, even if they had not ever used that particular model before. Having others around to help understand the device being used may encourage older adults to not only use it more frequently, but also use more features of it that they may have been unaware of otherwise.  This could also show that it is not necessarily a matter of ineptitude, but simply a lack of understanding that reinforces this stereotype.

While many older adults have someone from a younger cohort in their life to help learn how to use different forms or technology, others might not be so lucky.  There are also many opportunities, programs, and products available that may be of use to older adults that they may never become aware of without someone to introduce it to them.  Three workshops were set up in Alabama for a study performed to assist senior citizens residing in assisted living facilities learn more about computer programs and the assistance they could provide (Seals et al., 2008). During these workshops, data was collected through questionnaires, surveys, and interviews (Seals et al., 2008).  Through these workshops, Seals et al. (2008) noted that although it may take older adults more time to master computer skills, it is entirely possible.

As lifespans get longer, the aging population continues to grow, and technologies are only going to continue to advance.  Because of this, it is all the more important that adults are able to feel confident using technology, but also that they are taken into consideration as it progresses.  There are many services available to help combat many issues that come about as one gets older.  Mental training games can help keep the adult mind sharp, and internet accessibility can help to find medical information.  Cell phones with picture capability and programs such as Skype can help older adults connect with relatives who may not live nearby, or encourage a younger generation to keep in touch more easily.  The ability to shop online, even for groceries, may be advantageous to some who have more difficulty getting around.  That said, getting to that point is a two-way street.  Making technology more user-friendly to the needs of older adults, giving them the support necessary, and pointing them in the direction of programs that are more personalized to their needs are ways to help bridge the tech gap between the generations.

References

Lamont, R. A., Swift, H. J., & Abrams, D. (2015). A review and meta-analysis of age-based stereotype threat: Negative stereotypes, not facts, do the damage. Psychology and Aging, 30(1), 180-193.

Mori, K., & Harada, E. T. (2010). Is learning a family matter?: Experimental study of the influence of social environment on learning by older adults in the use of mobile phones. Japanese Psychological Research, 52(3), 244-255.

Seals, C. D., Clanton, K., Agarwal, R., Doswell, F., & Thomas, C. M. (2008). Lifelong learning: Becoming computer savvy at a later age. Educational Gerontology, 34(12), 1055-1069.

Zhou, J., Rau, P. P., & Salvendy, G. (2014). Older adults’ use of smart phones: an investigation of the factors influencing the acceptance of new functions. Behaviour & Information Technology, 33(6), 552-560.

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