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By Sally Hughes
What are the challenges in later life that persist as barriers to optimal creative, active aging? What are the most current technological advances that might help to increase older adults’ wellbeing? And how can older adults increase their access to the newer innovative technological products?
One of many stereotypes around aging is that seniors are resistant to new ideas and advances in technology. Not all seniors feel comfortable using technology, either because they don’t trust it or don’t understand how to use it. However, seniors were the first group to adopt wearables: in 1972, gerontologist Andrew Dibner created the Lifeline call button, a wearable emergency response system specifically designed to assist seniors.
The market of older adults (coined as the ‘silver market’ by Kohlbacher and Hang, 2011) is blossoming because their demand for new, just-good-enough, easy to use, and affordable products and services has increased so exponentially. However, research about barriers and challenges that face older adults who use technology is scarce…a lot more exploration needs to be done to ensure that the technology is accessible and easy to use, and designed with the older consumer in mind.
Today’s cohort of ‘seniors’ are functioning in a digital world where new social networks or “communities” seem to spring up on the Internet constantly. There are many social networks (groupings of individuals tied by one or more specific types of interests) available on the Internet that are useful and suitable for older adults: those living in rural areas, or who are living alone, may derive great benefit from the Internet. Social networking can be a way to meet online with local people or people from around the world. Major life changes such as relocation or divorce can leave a huge void in people’s lives, and finding a social networking site for older people can help to rebuild confidence and widen social circles.
“Baby Boomers” reconnect with old friends, make new friends, or simply to share personal information and media files (photos, videos, music) with others, all with the benefit of keeping them mentally and socially vital. As well as the large social networking sites, there is a plethora of smaller and more specialized sites that have been set up for specific interests, such as ‘Ravelry’, a site for knitters and crocheters, and ‘Bakespace’, a place to exchange recipes.
Directories are available (e.g. Wikipedia, Yahoo) to assist in finding sites. Some are:
- Silversurfers – to connect with people from similar walks of life
- Yahoo Groups – interests/hobbies
- Meetup – connects with people in the community to try something new
- seniorchatters – a place to chat, create personal blogs and join group forums
- 50connect– living life to the full, health, entertainment, food & drink
- Dogster – a site dedicated to dog lovers
- Catster – a site dedicated to cat lovers
- Hell’s Geriatrics – invites you to grow old disgracefully
- The Oldie – an online newspaper for over 50s
- Modern & Mature – a site aimed to help you make the most of your golden years
- olderiswiser – branded as the ‘social networking site for grown-ups’
- Never Mind The Bus Pass – a site aimed at those who don’t feel ‘older’
- Gransnet – a website specifically aimed at grandparents
- Over50sForum – a place to chat, share and make friends
- fiftyplusforum – a forum to discuss interests and chat to others
- Seniors.com – offers its members an online community who participate in its forums, chat functionalities, and other site-based tools designed to encourage members to share information and stories
- ThirdAge – discusses issues concerning health, aging and retirement
- CARP – news, games, photos, videos, or even tips on where to get discounts
- Rezoom – to create a personal profile, share and connect with others and share photos
- Multiply – (in use long before Facebook) has fun tools such as cards, calendars, photo editing, and more
- Senior Chatroom – its focus is making web chat much easier and accessible to older adults
- My Boomer Place – describes itself as a place to “meet, congregate and develop new relationships.” You can freely create your own profile and share information
Sharing links, photos, videos, news and status updates with a growing network of contacts with people of all ages can provide a valuable connection to faraway family and friends: the children and grandchildren of older adults document many aspects of their lives through social media.
There are many online forums where older Canadians are coping with challenging life situations, such as informal caregivers of a partner or parent with dementia or other health conditions, can exchange thoughts with others in similar situations, as well as receive and offer support. Older adults who experience loneliness and feelings of being isolated can connect with family and friends, as well as others in similar situations.
A variety of digital tools (‘apps’) are available on smartphones and tablets to simplify and enhance life. In addition to social media apps (Facebook, Pinterest, Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat) there are apps for book lovers (GoodReads, Kindle and Kobo), tools to organize shopping (Shopper app, Checkout51), health and fitness apps (FitBit, myfitnesspal, Medisafe Meds and Pills), gardening (My Garden, GrowVeg) and many more.
“Wearable technology” is creating a revolution in the way in which people can ensure their personal safety. Emergency and assistance calls can be made using everything from wearable tags to call units to mobile phones, and the tags can also track movement. There is a plethora of mobile ‘apps’ that collect data (heart rate, blood pressure, and amount of sleep.
Robot companions for older people that promote activity and attempt to address loneliness by encouraging them to take part in digital and physical activities are continuing to surface. Robot companions like the Paro (a touch-reactive electronic harp seal) have been shown to induce relaxation, reduce stress, and stimulate communication. Subsequent robots (e.g. ‘Palro’) offer to play games and dance with older adults, keeping their minds active with trivia. Home assistants such as the Amazon Echo, have been the precursors for interactive communication: these robots have voice-activated control systems and enable users to make video calls, play online games and interact on social media.
In the future, personal robots could aid older isolated people with time consuming household and personal hygiene tasks, such as showering or using the toilet, which can create an embarrassing dynamic between an older adult and the caregiver, and so also might make ideal tasks for robot care assistants. Furthermore, with the aid of personal robots, caregivers could spend more time engaging in one-on-one conversation, providing valuable social interaction.
We live in exciting times, and the potential for older adults to benefit from the new, innovative technologies is enormous! Once the research and exploration is done to ensure that the design and usability is optimized, technological ‘gadgets’ and social networking can really improve the quality of life for many older adults.
Sally is a long-term part time professor at Sheridan, teaching in the SSW/Gerontology program since 1985. After retiring from her 30-year position as a hospital/ geriatric social worker, she chose to re-enter university on her 65th birthday and has achieved her PhD in Social Dimensions of Health this past year.