Growing Old with Grace and Digitality
We wake up to email notifications, and we go to sleep to Netflix. We manage our dates, our partners, our kids on messaging apps. With so much of our lives lived online, it can be hard to remember that we still very much live alongside members of society whose lives are predominantly analogue. While 99% of 16–34 year olds in the UK are internet users in 2018, just under half of adults aged 75 and over are — around 5.4 million people.
It’s easy to mistakenly correlate old age with Ludditism. And easy to forget that technology is, if used effectively, an enabler of access to each other, which is something of increasing value as our hectic lives seem to make it harder and harder for us to hang on to the communities that we instinctively need. But while the need for community and wider family is ingrained through millennia of evolution, the ability to adapt to the pace of technology is not.
And while our elderly relatives’ digital communications may often be the source of passing humour, when it comes to navigating social media for political information and combating loneliness, the relationship between the elderly and their tech is not an area to be overlooked.
When I was little, I used to call my grandfather from the landline on Sunday mornings — it was the time that the rate for calling abroad was cheapest. When I went to university, I sent my grandfather emails, using Google’s pinyinator to type to him in Chinese. When WeChat came along, I’d send him pictures of my life, and short messages telling him I missed him. Sometimes we video call. Sometimes we send each other recorded voice messages. All of these changes in communication have occurred in the space of ten years.
Technology has been a consistent feature in our relationship, and we remain close in spite of the fact that I have not lived on the same continent as him since I was three years old. This is largely because I am fortunate to have a tech-savvy cousin who has taken the time to set up my grandfather’s WiFi, buy him a laptop, teach him how to use a smartphone. It’s because in Weihai, where my grandfather lives, there is a free scheme for retired academics where they can call on student volunteers to help them fix problems with WiFi, laptops, phones.
How does tech solve the problem of tech?
The adage that tech can solve everything is thrown into an interesting light when the problem that tech is trying to solve is tech itself. ..
There are certainly companies out there making brilliant progress in using technology to solve problems faced by the elderly. Solutions vary from the wearable medical alert system of Live!y to therapeutic seal PARO, which has been shown to have a positive effect on people living with Alzheimer’s disease. Japan in particular has invested significant time and resource into deploying robotics in elderly care.
But while these things might address problems on the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, we should expect that our elderly friends and relatives have as much interest in the higher levels as we do. After all, we will someday be them, and — watching my friends’ kids interact with devices today — I fear that future is closer than we are willing to admit.
Residential and Care Center Humanitas in Deventer in the Netherlands is an excellent example of an intervention that has made great progress in this direction. By providing free rent to university students in exchange for 30 hours a month of their time as neighbours to their elderly co-habitants, the programme addresses the core problems of our age: loneliness, social isolation, and the loss of community-driven wellbeing.
Goodgym is a similar programme run in the UK where runners run to visit elderly ‘coaches’ nearby as part of their own fitness routine.
We are all trans-generational translators
I spoke to a programmer recently about how young people can help older relatives with technology. “My mom does translation for a living; jobs come in via a website but most of them are too far for her to drive. I wrote a scraper that finds jobs in her proximity, reserves them and notifies her via text. This was a huge life improvement for her. She’s 64.” While this isn’t the kind of intervention that is accessible to everyone (and indeed not one that most companies would be happy about), it is one of many ways that individuals are already finding ways to keep their elderly relatives up to speed with technology.
A photographer in her 20s told me about how her grandmother was given an alarm clock that would project the time onto the ceiling so she wouldn’t have to get out of bed to check the time. An undergraduate student talked about how her uncle set up her grandparents and her sisters with Zoom so that the family could all meet on calls together.
It is clear that it is possible to grow old and remain connected. We have never lived in a better time for it. But what that demands of us is that we recognise and embrace our roles as the trans-generational translators of our age for our older loved ones.
And it’s not even a new role. We already do this for our children, for each other. It’s just that in the age of constantly-having-messages-we-need-to-reply-to, it can be easy to forget that our WhatsApp list is not representative of how important people are to us, and that the ultimate goal of our use of tech is to bring us back to what matters: staying connected.