Guest Blog: Older Adults and “Cutting-edge” Technology

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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
  • – 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.


Guest Blog: 5 Principles for Designing Delightful Digital Experiences for Seniors

1yob0vag9wywilhvdpp2ylqKaye Mao, a fourth-year student in the Interaction Design program is completing her independent thesis entitled ‘Exploratory use, and learning of, mobile touch-based technologies’ (title subject to change) with the Centre. She is interested in how we learn to use new technologies, specifically mobile touch screen technologies.

Kaye’s guest blog for this month, 5 Principles for Designing Delightful Digital Experiences for Seniors, discusses some of the barriers older adults experience when using new technology. She also shares five design principles from her research that guided her “in designing delightful digital experiences for seniors aged 60+”.

To read Kaye’s blog click on the link below:
5 Principles for Designing Delightful Digital Experiences for Seniors


Combating Social Isolation During the Holiday Season

imagesAs a previous Aging Matters blog discussed, the holiday season may be difficult for some older adults who are experiencing social isolation. There are many contributing factors that place an older adult at risk for loneliness and social isolation. According to the McMaster Aging Portal; “Older adults are at increased risk of being socially isolated or lonely. By the time people reach their 80s, the majority live on their own, mostly because of widowhood. This is particularly the case for older women who are more likely to be widowed than older men. Older people’s social networks often get smaller for other reasons as well – children may have moved away, along with grandchildren, and aging siblings and friends may have died. Loneliness is also prevalent among older adults. One in five Canadians aged 65 or older indicated that they felt lonely some of the time or often in a recent study. The proportion is even higher among those 85 years or older – 25% of individuals in that age bracket felt lonely some of the time or often. Living alone, health problems and disability, sensory impairment such as hearing loss, and major life events such as loss of a spouse have all been identified as risk factors for social isolation and loneliness.”

Fortunately, there are many community campaigns available worldwide to ensure that older adults are not alone during the holidays. One example is the Community Christmas project which believes that ‘no elderly person in the UK should be alone on Christmas Day unless they want to be’. The project provides resources and support for those who wish to provide companionship for older adults on Christmas Day.

Studies have shown that older adults who use technology feel less lonely. Technology provides individuals with the tools to communicate and engage with family and friends who may live far away. Social websites such as strive to provide a ‘positive and safe community’ for older adults to engage with others.

The Centre for Elder Research wishes everyone a happy holiday season and all the best in the new year!

Aging in Place: Optimizing Health Outcomes through Technology, Design and Social Inclusion

itsawrapOn October 27th 2016, the Centre for Elder Research hosted a symposium to celebrate the end of a successful 6-year, $2.3 million grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The grant, titled, Aging in Place: Optimizing Health Outcomes through Technology, Design and Social Inclusion explored how businesses and service providers could design their services/products/process to better meet the needs of older adults aging in place.

The It’s a Wrap! symposium highlighted the research conducted by the Centre in collaboration with 14 small- and medium-sized businesses and explored some emerging trends in the area with talks from 5 professionals who shared their insights into how technology supports aging in place.

Keynote speaker Alex Mihailidis, PhD., P.Eng., the Scientific Director of the AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence, spoke about disruptive technology and its role in changing the current landscape of innovation. Alex described a challenging paradox that we are currently facing in Canada: the support needs of our growing, aging population are increasing, but the technological tools we have available to help us are underused by older adults because either they don’t support their needs, they are too expensive, they are not user-friendly, or, as in the case of some assistive devices, they are viewed as stigmatizing. Alex says we need to force new ways of thinking about technology and design; this is where the disruptive innovation (paired with a little bit of inspiration) comes into play. Some new technologies that are currently pushing that boundary include smart homes, driverless cars, advances in robotics and big data. Each of these new technologies has the potential to be adapted and/or customized to support a user’s unique needs and will certainly revolutionize the current innovation landscape. It’s pretty cool to think about what exciting things we’ll be able to do with technology in the coming years!

Robyn Kalda, a specialist in the use of technology for health promotion, focused on how we can use new technologies in health-promoting ways. Robyn pointed out that a large component of health promotion is feeling in control of health and lifestyle changes. From the perspective of technology, it is important to consider when devices (like the ever-popular ‘wearables’ for example) exist to give people control over their health versus when they are used to control people and their behaviours. This distinction has implications for the outcomes of health promotion strategies involving technology; we need to make sure the technology is having the right sort of impact on the user. The take away message from Robyn’s talk was when using technology for health promotion, either formally or even in your own life, think about:

1. Who was this technology designed for (i.e. is accessible for everyone?)
2. What is the evidence that it’s any good?
3. Does it give you control over your health/behaviour or does it take control away?

Something to think about before you buy that Fitbit for someone on your holiday shopping list…

John Helliker, the Director of Sheridan’s Screen Industries Research and Training Centre (SIRT) spoke more specifically about the opportunities for individual and social change using virtual and augmented reality technology. These technologies can have various applications in clinical and assistive living settings. Virtual reality allows the person interacting with it to have an immersive, first person perspective and experience a different reality, while augmented reality can enhance our understanding, and engagement with, the world around us by allowing us to access additional information or content. Think about the possibilities for using virtual or augmented reality to help people manage anxiety, phobias, depression or symptoms of dementia. Even more compellingly, virtual reality can also help to build empathy in friends, family, caregivers and health team members for individuals living with mental health issues or dementia by allowing them to experience first-hand these types of conditions. John believes that “the world is our oyster right now” with the development and use of this technology. You may have seen some people in your neighbourhood playing Pokemon Go in the last 6 months or so. Pokemon Go is a very successful example of augmented reality being used (in game form) by the general public.

Dr. Kelly Murphy, a Psychologist at Baycrest Health Services talked about a unique use of a technology more familiar and accessible to us all, the web-based app. Kelly walked attendees through the journey her team went through to develop and test a new app called ArtOnTheBrain. From the research literature, the Baycrest team knew that enjoyable and meaningful recreation improves well-being, and that there is something special about participation in the arts. It can often provide more holistic benefits than other recreation and leisure pursuits, and this is something that we’ve seen in our research at the Centre as well. So, ArtOnTheBrain was developed to provide an art-based experience that is user-led and involves learning about works of art and developing a dialogue with others. The goal, Kelly explained, was to develop a tool that could be part of a wider health toolkit for older adults. This app could promote social, emotional and spiritual well-being, and increases access to meaningful recreation, while still being accessible and sustainable and using technology that most people already have in their homes.

Mary Jane Carroll, a professor from Sheridan’s Bachelor of Interior Design program focused on the reality facing many older adults who are hoping to age in place, and that is the need for home modifications and the affordability of these renovations and assistive technologies. The greatest culprits? The majority of renovation costs come from remodeling the kitchen and bathrooms, widening hallways and making the front access point of the house more accessible.

Working with her students, Mary Jane has been running a Home Assessment research project to:

  1. Assess the ability of current homes to support aging in place and
  2. Explore the ways that design can help to provide affordable, practical solutions to combat the high cost of home modifications and accessible technologies.

Before you start that next renovation in your home or the home of a loved one, consider ways to support aging in place through your design choices – accessible homes benefit everyone who lives in them.

There you have it, a summary of the symposium, in case you missed it! While ‘it’s a wrap’ on this particular funding program, the Centre is currently engaged in multiple projects that build on the success of this grant to continue to conduct innovative, Lab to Life® research. Stay tuned to keep learning about our work, and thank you to everyone who contributed to the success of the Aging in Place grant!