More Seniors Are Embracing Technology. But Can They Use It? UCSD Researchers Suggest Asking Them


We’re told older adults are embracing technology more than ever. And there’s no doubt that inventors in the digital space are scrambling to find ways to market their platforms and tools to them. (Think high tech wearables that monitor everything from blood pressure to daily steps taken, screen magnification, talk-to-text and even assistive domotics and home robots.) Still we all know at least one older person who can barely text let alone maneuver mobile apps. So while they may be purchasing laptops, smart phones and tablets and all of the possibilities they intend, many older adults say they still don’t feel confident about using them.

A recent study published in the journal Healthcare analyzed older adults’ perspectives on technology intended to allow them to stay in their own homes longer, so-called “aging in place.” According to the lead author of the study, Shengzhi Wang of the Design Lab at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), researchers found that many times “frustration” with new technology made older adults unsure of their ability to use it, leaving them unmotivated to even try.

The study was part of a UC San Diego Health Sciences project on technology-enabled health research. Researchers convened two focus groups at a local retirement community in August of 2018 to explore both barriers and facilitators to technology adoption as well as privacy concerns and any interest participants may have in helping companies design the technology that could serve them.

The research can’t come soon enough. A recent Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data found that Americans ages 60 and older—a group increasingly populated by aging Baby Boomers—spend more than half of their daily leisure time (just over 4 hours) on their TVs, computers, tablets or other electronic devices. “Screen time has increased for those in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond, and the rise is apparent across genders and education levels,” wrote Pew’s Gretchen Livingston. “This rise in screen time coincides with significant growth in the adoption of digital technology by older Americans. In 2000, 14% of those ages 65 and older were internet users; now 73% are. And while smartphone ownership was uncommon at all ages around the turn of the 21st century, now about half (53%) of people 65 and older are smartphone owners.”

So apparently the problem isn’t owning them, it’s using them. And often that’s because there is no input from older adults on their design. “Most older adults prefer to age in place, and technologies, including Internet of things (IoT), Ambient/Active Assisted Living (AAL) robots and other artificial intelligence (AI), can support independent living,” the authors of the UC San Diego study wrote. “However, a ‘top-down’ design process creates mismatches between technologies and older adults’ needs.”

In their study, researchers found that low technology literacy—including lack of familiarity with tech terminology—and physical challenges, which can make adoption difficult, were the biggest barriers to the seniors’ adoption of new technology.

Still, researchers acknowledged that participants were eager to learn, interested in contributing to the design of technologies that would facilitate their aging independently, and had a desire to understand and control their data as privacy was important to them.

Researchers reported a key barrier to wider adoption of technology by older Americans has been the “top-down” design process that is often used in creating technology for them. It’s a process based on “technologists’ or at best geriatricians’ preconceptions of what older adults need with little consideration of user perspectives and preferences or their real-world constraints,” the authors wrote.

While studies have shown that older adults could use well-designed technologies in their daily lives, few have addressed user-related issues in their design process. Researchers concluded that effective technologies are going to be “those that prioritize the needs and wishes of older adults, general acceptance of potential users, and suitable preconditions for its adoption”—all difficult goals to achieve “with a top-down design methodology that fails to engage users in the design process.”

Participants in the study reported a lack of understanding of modern technologies and digital platforms as a barrier that kept them from using new technology and dependent on others to operate basic features. They said they had purchased services (e.g., Netflix) they didn’t use, because they couldn’t understand how to work them.

“I know I’m looking for this connection, but I don’t know what it’s called. I don’t know what the things are, and so there is no…terminology, you know…,” one participant told interviewers.

Some participants said they needed help from grandchildren to use their smart phones. And still others said they had left the workforce before technology was integrated into daily work, leaving them without the vocabulary or basic skills needed to function in the digital age.

One participant described it this way:

“…I retired 20-something years ago, so I didn’t have the opportunity to work with them [technology] at work. So we got less work-based training on them and I don’t understand the language of it. Trying to hook a printer up to my laptop—they said to put in the IPP [sic IP] address. Uhh, I can’t find it… you know, and things like that, I don’t know what they are talking about.”

And “How To” and “Getting Started” manuals that accompany technology devices are of little help to a person who doesn’t understand the terminology, participants said. One study participant had this to say: “Show me, slow down, and it’s hard to get ‘em to slow down…I feel like I’m being a burden or they just don’t think Nana is smart enough. Maybe I’m not, but I could try to be if they were a little more patient.”

One participant even asked if university students were being trained to help older adults learn to use  new technologies.

The authors noted that the World Health Organization (WHO) has initiated a movement to establish age-friendly communities as it anticipates the increasing number of older adults. And they recommended consulting older adults about the technologies that might accompany those communities.

“An important component of this initiative should be identifying technologies that support aging in place,” they wrote, adding that their research engaging older adults “in the design of technologies is often overlooked or an afterthought. Technologies that are commonly used by older adults are often developed without consulting them at the early stage of product conception. This top-down design model means that user input is only received by the product developer after it is completed, making it much harder to alter in order to fit user needs. Our study showed that older adults are experts in their lived experiences and can identify the potential barriers to technology adoption and use.”

In the UC San Diego study, participants admitted to having concerns about technologies they interacted with daily and offered ideas for how to improve them. Researchers said that while it may be impractical to educate older adults on more complicated topics in computer science, basic knowledge about current technologies and how they interact with each other would be immensely valuable.

One study participant commented that the personnel in their community spend a lot of time letting people into their apartments because residents misplace or forget their keys. The participant suggested an eye scanning or finger print sensor that could be used to unlock the door of the residence, or a system that mimics the proximity-based keyless lock system on modern cars. “By gaining a high-level understanding, the resulting ideas and concepts generated by older adults can be more meaningful, particularly in the prototyping stage of the participatory design process, where practical knowledge is needed,” the authors wrote.

Participants also discussed the importance of privacy and control over data about them. This type of feedback is “especially useful when designing technologies for older adults, who may have a very different perception of data and expectations around privacy than younger generations,” the authors wrote. Researchers found that many participants were willing to provide sensitive data if it meant getting meaningful feedback on the status of their heath. But at the same time, they said they were reluctant to share data of other categories due to hacking or data loss concerns. “A participatory design process that values privacy could be a key factor in improving user adoption,” researchers said.

As more and more people enter their 60s in the coming decades, technology companies will be forced to consider the needs as well as perspectives of this growing population if they hope to sell them their devices and services.

“It’s the mother of all untapped markets: the world’s 65-plus population. Already at a historical high of over 600 million people, it’s projected to hit a full billion by 2030, and 1.6 billion by 2050,” wrote Joseph F. Coughlin in his Barron’s article on why seniors are the fastest growing market. “.…the sheer amount of money involved nearly defies comprehension. In the U.S. alone, the spending of Americans ages 50 and up in 2015 accounted for nearly $8 trillion worth of economic activity. The Boston Consulting Group projects that by 2030, the U.S. 55-plus population will have accounted for half of all domestic consumer spending growth…There may be other major changes coming to the world’s economies—the rise of artificial intelligence, for instance, or the effects of climate change—but in terms of sheer, mind-numbing predictability, the longevity economy beats them all.

I was the girl who stayed at grandma’s table after the others went out to play. I relished stories like grandpa’s tale of the American Indian woman who was laid to rest.