Techno seniors

This year for Christmas, my siblings and I gave our dad a Kindle. Apparently we aren’t alone in wanting to introduce technology to older parents to help make their lives easier and more enjoyable.

It was with a great deal of interest that I read this article from the New Old Age blog at the New York Times, outlining some of the issues for older adults in choosing, using and becoming adept with the many forms of digital communication.

It makes an important point: Just because someone is older doesn’t mean they’re unable or unwilling to learn something new. (Dad wanted a Kindle and even helped pick out the one with the features he liked best.) The main thing, according to the article, is to make it worth their while:

Experts say the key to making tech work for Mom and Dad is not to buy the newest cool thing, but to look for a device or software that fulfills a basic need, that does something they particularly want to do. And it’s helpful if the learning curve involves an element or two already familiar to them.

The writer offers several examples: for instance, Skype’s video calling service that allows older parents who no longer travel to connect with their family for the holidays.

As is so often the case, the comments in response to the article are almost as illuminating as the article itself – especially the responses from readers who objected to the ongoing stereotype of older adults as technology-resistant and unable to learn. “Are you telling me my brain will stop working as soon as I reach the age when you youngsters decide to patronize me?” one person asked.

The teensy keypad on my dad’s new Kindle brings up another issue: the manufacturers’ apparent blindness to engineering, design and marketing that’s user-friendly to older consumers. How is someone with arthritis or vision impairment supposed to use those little bitty keys? “The tech industry done a rotten job of selling their products, both hard and soft, to people over 50!” one of the New York Times commenters wrote. “How can we older folk get to know what is available, let alone how to use it, if no effort is made to try to sell to us?”

Perhaps older people simply have a more realistic, or utilitarian, perspective on technology and are less likely to be wowed by something simply because it’s new. This lesson was driven home rather bluntly at the GeriPal geriatrics and palliative care blog, where a study on the benefits of telemonitoring for patients with heart failure was recently analyzed. The study found that telemonitoring made no difference in outcomes for these patients, prompting the blogger to ask, “Is all this enthusiasm for telemonitoring justified?”

Well, yes and no. When technology falls short, sometimes it’s because it isn’t being used in ways that are most effective. On the other hand, adopting new technology for the sake of newness doesn’t automatically guarantee it’ll be helpful.

I suspect that for many older people, having the latest electronic toy just isn’t a priority. What tends to matter most for them is whether a new gadget will improve their quality of life. Deliver something they can use and enjoy, and they’ll adapt with minimal trouble, the same as any other age group. Come to think of it, this is a standard more people should follow, regardless of how old they are.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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