Never Too Old: Incorporating Digital Technologies into the Lives of Older Persons

Posted on: June 15th, 2011 by Rachel Goddard

Older people are the fastest growing segment of the population in Europe and the U.S. Most of them have not grown up with Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). However, since such technologies are pervasive in daily living, they have almost no other option than to “take it or leave it” when faced with ICT that does not meet their needs.

Older people have largely been overlooked in the design of ICT, resulting in serious accessibility barriers and digital exclusion. For instance, we have observed how older people struggle to book train tickets online, since the forms and the multiple steps are not easy for them to understand. Whereas some older people can be reluctant to use ICT, over the last five years we have observed and talked to people like a Dundee participant we’ll refer to as Bob. He feels older people need to “make adjustments” to engage with computers to continue to contribute to their community and society as a whole. Bob, who had no previous knowledge of computers, created a website on his wartime missions with the aim of sharing what he has been doing for the last fifty years with old friends who had attended the same academy.

We argue that the changes caused by the incorporation of ICT into the lives of people like Bob need to be understood in order to inspire designs that fit better into their lives. In this article, we aim to share relevant changes in the lives of some Dundee participants who are both frustrated by, and enthusiastic about, ICT, and who have been helping us since 2005 to build up and maintain the Dundee User Centre. In so doing, they have improved our understanding of what it means to be an older person incorporating ICT into his or her life.

Change 1: Retirement and undergoing transitions when over sixty.

Although retirement brings with it opportunities for new activities, it also results in a change in older people’s perceptions of themselves. For instance, they might have been in a profession that afforded them high status, such as a doctor, or have been part of a team (for example, factory worker). However, they now face the loss of this status and the fact that they no longer belong to a work-related social entity. It’s not an easy thing to do. We’ve sometimes seen that older people retired from certain professions (specifically where they have had secretarial support) have more of a struggle with new technology, largely because they now have to do things themselves and they have limited typing skills. Furthermore, many older people have been put-off using computers by negative experiences in their work environment, such as struggling to adapt to new methods while using spreadsheets for accounts. These negative feelings about technology stay with them when they retire.

older adults using a touch screen

Trying out new technologies: viewing photos on the multi-touch surface in the User Centre.

Change 2: Where is the paper?
 Everything is now digital! 

Most traditional face-to-face governmental services are being turned into digital ones. Such a move is seen by industry and government as a means of providing improved quality and reach of services and products at a lower cost. However, where do these developments leave people who struggle to use constantly changing technologies? Lily, 73, a Dundee participant, told us: “It seems that I have to do everything online these days. No one seems willing to send you paper bills these days. You are charged quite a bit extra if you want a bill sent through the post. Most companies expect you to be online.”

Change 3: The phone seems to be 
much less useful today.

With today’s limitless capacity for people to stay in touch by various means, what does this mean for people who are used to phone calls and letters? It tends to be older people who have to adapt their means of communication if they want to maintain contact with important younger family members, such as their grandchildren. Whereas this change might be considered negative, keeping in touch with their loved ones is a big motivation for them to take up ICT, and therefore feel more integrated into or included in society. “I love to stay in touch with my children and grandchildren, but I don’t like to bother them too much,” said Jane, 64. “If I phone, they don’t always say very much. I suppose they can answer an e-mail when they have time. I often have a look on Facebook to see what they are all up to, but I don’t like to put things on there myself. It’s nice to feel a part of things though.”

Photo of an older man with a website

From no knowledge of computers to producing a wartime website.

Change 4: Much less face-to-face contact.

Whereas ICT has great potential to reduce isolation, we need to ensure that it is used to support contact rather than reduce it. Replacing face-to-face visits with ICT is not what the Dundee participants want. They do not wish to be glued to the computer screen. They have embraced technologies such as Skype, as it lets them have contact with friends and relatives in distant places (usually with a bit of help to get started). However, the idea of a Skype call to their children who live in the same town does not hold any appeal. They would rather their children took the time to visit in person.

Photo of older adults using computers

Learning new technologies at the User Centre.

Change 5: PCs, i-technologies…
and tomorrow?

One might expect that the new tablet-style computers (e.g. the Apple iPad) should provide a better introduction to computing with its more intuitive interface. However, issues such as syncing and having to set up iTunes accounts to access apps spoils the simplicity and brings about another change in the lives of those older people who want to use these technologies: emerging ICT can motivate them to remain active and socially engaged, but it also tends to mean more (and new) difficulties using them. Audrey, 72, states “I have no idea what syncing is and I had to get help with setting up an iTunes account. I still have trouble with this and wish it was easier. I don’t have an iPod and have never used iTunes, but people seem to think that we all have and use these things.”

Older adults using a Wii Sports

Coming to grips with the Wii Sports at the User Centre.

No Final Word, but Plenty of Food for Thought

We have attempted to share a few interesting stories of older people who are living with ICT, not just using them. Whereas many older people do not want to hear anything about computers, a large number are embracing them and experiencing negative, but also positive, changes in their lives, such as feeling closer to their loved ones.

There is a need to rethink how we involve older people in user experience research. We should avoid thinking of them as a group of people with specific accessibility needs or people who cannot be helped by ICT. We can be “creative” in understanding what they do know, want, and need, and how the ICT can be designed with these needs in mind. We can learn a lot from observing them while using computers and talking with them about their use of them and their wider interests.

Older people are less interested in new technology because it is new and exciting. They need evidence that it will be useful to them before they expend energy and money on using it. Finding a hook to reel the person in is the key, whether it be communication, travel, photography, or family history. Once they are interested in ICT, it is important that they are not intimidated by it. Providing clear information on what a website or product actually does (for example: “What does Facebook do that I can’t do with my e-mail?”) can help a lot, and can be done by user interface designers, service providers, and/or governments. Whereas this knowledge can also be gained by using ICT, many older people do not just simply jump on the bandwagon of ICT. They fail to see the purpose of social networking sites and think they are just for frivolous gossip.

There is also a need to increase awareness of accessibility features that are already available. The aging process leads to increasing accessibility needs, as vision, hearing, dexterity, and cognitive capabilities are reduced, but these changes vary greatly from person to person, and might be gradual and unnoticed by an older person. But older people may be unaware of obscure accessibility features which, if used, could overcome difficulties reading content and interacting with an ICT.

Accessibility changes have a social impact too—minor adjustments to mouse behavior, for example, can help to preserve access—but more advance assistive technology may lead to a sense of exclusion for older people who want to use what their grandchildren do, rather than a “special” solution. However, this does not mean that making these accessibility features available will fix all accessibility problems. Instead, our experience suggests that we need to know how older people use the technologies (when, where, with whom…) in order to ascertain when these accessibility features should be more visible, and how these changes should be implemented.

Acknowledgements

We want to thank all the members of the Dundee User Centre for allowing us to learn from and with them, and for sharing some of their views in this article. We also acknowledge the support received from the Mathew Trust and the RCUK Digital Economy Research Hub EP/G066019/1 “SIDE: Social Inclusion Through the Digital Economy” for funding of equipment for the User Centre, the ESRC’s New Dynamics of Aging Program (Grant Number RES-353-25-0008) for funding the SUS-IT project: “SUS-IT: SUStaining IT Use by Older People to Promote Autonomy and Independence,” and the support from the Commission for Universities, and Research of the Ministry of Innovation, Universities and Enterprise of the Autonomous Government of Catalonia.