The quick advancement of technology has always presented a challenge to seniors, but never more so than over the past two decades. The digital revolution has proceeded at a breakneck pace. Technologies that seemed outlandish and alien to some older people just ten years ago have been completely eclipsed and made obsolete by rapid innovation.
As Paula Span noted in her aging and technology blog for the New York Times, learning to use a new gadget isn't as simple as picking it up, reading the manual and figuring out which button does what. Technology skills acquisition is a cumulative process, akin to learning a foreign language. If you don't have a good grasp of basic vocabulary and simple operations, it’s a significant challenge to develop skills based on more advanced concepts.
And lack of basic understanding isn't the only hurdle many seniors face.
"Teaching skills only addresses part of the problem, of course; the costs of devices and of Internet service also keep older people offline, and so do physical limitations or cognitive impairment. Still, learning the technology is key," Span wrote.
And that is true for all seniors— whether they be living independently in their own homes, or in assisted care. Technology skills have become nearly essential in order to effectively manage personal business, health and even social life.
Many seniors simply have no idea how to go about acquiring new technology skills.
Many older persons experience acute anxiety when trying to learn how to operate new technologies; a patient teacher would be a valuable resource for these individuals.
”Everyone exploring a new world needs a guide," Span said. Still, a lot of seniors don't know where to start when looking for one.
Compounding the issue, although there are plenty of publically-funded and privately-funded programs to improve technology access for schoolchildren and for the underprivileged, there has been little concerted, national action undertaken to improve American seniors' access to technology.
"Though lots of communities offer computer classes for older adults," Span noted, "the response has been mostly local and small-scale."
That is particularly true of the Greater Cincinnati area. Senior learning centers with nationwide reach, like SeniorNet and Connections, have no coverage in the Tristate (the nearest Connections learning center is in Louisville, KY).
Still, there is hope for seniors who want to digitally engage.
Luckily, new devices are being designed with seniors of limited technical ability in mind.
Tablet devices, like Apple's iPad, and smartphones with touchscreen interfaces like the iPhone, or Samsung's Android-based Galaxy series of phones, incorporate a high degree of intuitive, user-friendly programming. These devices are designed to anticipate an operator's intent and to assist him or her in performing tasks.
"They are so intuitive, they know what you want, and they do it for you," one 78-year old man told the Denver Post's Andy Vuong, speaking about iPads.
In addition to intuitive design, tablet devices also offer more versatility and portability for seniors than do typical laptops. They are lighter weight and, thus, easier to carry. Icon size and screen resolution can be increased with a simple swipe of the fingers. Programs can be opened and operated with screen touches, reducing reliance on keyboard interfaces which can be especially tricky for a senior with arthritis to manage.
For seniors who are not very tech savvy, there are plenty of free tutorial videos on websites like YouTube, which can teach the basics of operation with an easy to follow, learn at your own pace method.
Applications— user-friendly, task-specific programs that can be downloaded onto smartphones and tablets— are increasingly being designed to add value to seniors' lives. Health apps like HeartWise (which tracks blood pressure), Pillboxie (which assists seniors in tracking and remembering to take their daily medications) and WebMD (a medical information resource) are improving senior patient engagement rates and helping older people to live longer and more productively.
Technology doesn't have to be a barrier.
With many senior-friendly devices making their way onto the market today, fewer basic skills are needed in order to start going digital. Though technology access for seniors is not yet universal, promising new devices and designs may help us to realize the full promise the digital world has to offer us.