Originally published on thegerontechnologist.com
In my early days of working with older adults, I never gave much thought to their views and feelings about technology. When you’re working at an NGO that’s providing services to underprivileged seniors, there is always something more urgent to tend to. When I started working at Intuition Robotics 3 years ago, I researched the topic thoroughly and came to one conclusion: older adults want to use technology.
This may come as a surprise to people who only have their own grandparents to look at when they try to imagine how older adults interact with technology. That’s one of the reasons that until recent years, we haven’t seen too many startups and tech companies target that age group.
You could say that gerontechnology is taking it’s first baby steps in the world of older adults. How can I be so confident when I say older adults do want technology?
Older Adults Are Not a Homogenous Group
When we think of the older population, the first thing we’ve got to remember is that it’s a heterogeneous group. A 65-year-old and her mother who is 85 years old are both considered older adults. We would never assume that a 5-year-old and a 25-year-old have the same wants and needs, so why would we make that assumption when it comes to older people?
To simplify things, we can divide the older adult demographic to brackets gerontologists like to use: 65–74 (young old), 75–84 (middle old) and 85+ (oldest old).
The Baby Boomers Are “Elderly Adopters”
Today’s boomers (10,000 of them retire each day in the US) spent most of their adult years around technology. It may seem like ancient history, but PCs have become ubiquitous in workplaces during the ’80s, and in households during the ’90s.
Broadband internet has been available for 20 years. Who do you think bought today’s Silicone Vally executives their first PCs? That’s right, their boomer parents! If you pick out a random 60 year old in the streets of SF and ask them which mobile phone they’re using, it’s quite likely they’ll show you an iPhone.
If you come to their house, they might show off their brand new smart speaker they got in a bundle with their kids, in order to communicate better or just play some music since the CD player broke. They’re also avid social media users, according to recent studies.
The Middle Old
Those who are 75–84 can be called “middle-old”. It’s true that most of them were close to retirement when the internet was at its early days. They probably didn’t HAVE to learn how to use a computer to keep doing whatever it was they were doing to earn a living. However, these older adults are still active, enjoy living, value the relationships they have with friends and family, and understand that technology can help them stay connected, up-to-date, and maybe even enjoy life more. They are willing to learn how to use new and technology spend money on it, as long as they find it useful and that it brings value to their lives (rather than just being a pretty object sitting in a drawer somewhere).
The Oldest Old
When it comes to 85-year-olds, things get a little more complicated. Social circles start to dwindle, widowhood is much more common, health and security issues become a major concern. When it comes to adoption of new technologies- rates drop significantly. Products have to be a lot more enticing and easy to use, for them to be considered a “worthy spend” by people of that age group. Why is that? First of all, because most tech products weren’t designed with them in mind. Those 5" screens require quite a lot of dexterity. That’s why jitterbug phones are needed and that’s why those types of phones are adopted. Tablets are adopted by that age group because the large screen and large buttons make them easier to use. Voice-activated devices like the Google Home and Amazon Echo are also “adoptable” since they require very little “know-how” in learning how to use them. What could be easier than simply saying: “Alexa, play some classical music”? (only a device that could read your mind).
The Bottom Line
Older adults want to use technology. But they aren’t willing to use ANY technology at ANY cost. I’m not talking about how much it costs in USD (which is a factor in making a purchase decision), I’m talking about the time and energy it takes to learn how to use devices, and about the value those devices bring to one’s life. No one would expect a 20 something-year-old to spend $1000 on a device that requires them to read the manual every time they want to perform a simple task, so we shouldn’t expect 80 something-year-olds to do it. Gerontechnology should be simple and, well, intuitive.