Golden Oldies: Improving the Quality of Life of Older Adults by Leveraging Today’s Tech

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Mark Twain was once quoted as saying, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” There’s a surprising amount of truth in Mark Twain’s statement: being active and maintaining a youthful lifestyle is sometimes as much a factor of one’s attitude as of anything else. 

Yes, it’s still true that you’re only young once. And there are, of course, endless challenges that come with aging. But as people in the 21st century start living longer than ever before, an increasingly important question is how to stay young in spirit and maintain a high quality of life in later years. Common technologies and applications have a significant role in providing the answer.

We’re Living Longer, Day by Day

Older adults represent a large – and growing – percentage of the total population. According to the UN, it is estimated that by 2050 the percentage of those aged 60+ will double, representing 21.5% of the world’s population. 

According to the National Institute of Aging, the increase in average life expectancy during the 20th century is one of society’s greatest achievements. Until the beginning of the 19th century, a typical individual was lucky to reach the ripe old age of 40, and life expectancy at birth in the US was 47 years. In contrast, according to the World Health Organization, the life expectancy for 2015 was 71.4 years globally and 79 years in the US, and if this trend continues at its current rate (about three months of life per year), life expectancy for Americans born in the middle of the century should reach 88 years.

The Times They are A-Changin’

The challenge lies in how the older population, born in a quickly disappearing time when letters needed stamps from the post office and phones were landlines with rotary dials, integrates with the fast-paced and fast-changing millennial generation and now post-millennial generation – those born mid-1990s to early 2000s – Generation Z, nicknamed iGen.

The kids, teens, and adults of Generation Z were born in the era of smartphones. They grew up with high speed Internet, in a world where (for example) sharing personal details on social media was the norm. This generation is digitally savvy and wired into non-traditional forms of communication. Young lifestyle blogger Hannah Payne, quoted in this NYT article, perhaps says it best: “We are the first true digital natives. I can almost simultaneously create a document, edit it, post a photo on Instagram and talk on the phone, all from the user friendly interface of my iPhone.”

A Digital, Generational Divide

Looking at Generation Z’s typical persona and lifestyle, it’s easy to see there’s a cultural, technological gap that can sometimes be hard for older adults to bridge. In today’s reality, things keep changing. The technology of today is gone tomorrow. And technology is thoroughly part of daily living – a necessity, no longer entertainment or a “nice to have.” It is how we pay our bills, do shopping, find out where an office is or when it is open. It’s also how people connect to family, friends, and the broader community.

The Stats Show Slower Adoption Rates

Older adults are not adopting the latest technology in the same numbers as younger populations. And herein lies the divide: those who are comfortable with the new tools and those who are left behind. 

A significant chunk of the older age group is simply not connected. Pew Research Center data shows that 41% of those aged 65+ are not online. Additional research from Pew published earlier this year breaks down the data further.  Social Media, for example, has been adopted by just 34% of those 65+, compared to 86% of those 18-29, and even 64% of those 50-64. Smartphones are owned by only 42% of those 65+, compared to 92% of those 18-29.

Shaping How We Work and Play

The American Association of Retired Person (AARP) focuses not only on the number of older people who are connected but also on their habits, i.e., what older people are opting to do with the technology. Usage differs fundamentally from that of younger age groups. 

Recent research published in 2016 Technology Trends among Mid-Life and Older Americans highlights that the 50+ population uses technology primarily to keep in touch with friends and family, with email and texting the most popular methods for staying connected. Social media is used less – partly due to this age group’s strong and deeply ingrained concerns about online privacy.  

Bottom line: It is really more the younger folks who are using their phones to watch videos, listen to music and socialize.  The available entertainment platforms and range of resources that tech provides can be an important source of intellectual stimulation and it’s unclear why older adults are not using it – whether it’s because people in an older age bracket don’t feel comfortable connecting to digital content, they simply aren’t interested, or perhaps (in some cases) because they don’t know what is available. 

The Importance of Being Social

A two-year experimental study carried out in the UK and Italy called Ages 2.0 illustrated how significant the Internet can be in supporting and developing an active, engaged, and social elderly population. The project involved a group of 120 individuals who each received a computer designed especially for the elderly, a broadband connection, and training on how to use email and social media. Their experiences were then compared to those of a control group. 

Participants used Facebook and Skype, for example, to maintain connections with children and grandchildren and even to reconnect with childhood friends. 

The study showed that mastering email and social media helped individuals feel less isolated, and they showed real cognitive improvements. Some of the study’s participants reported feeling both mentally and physically healthier than before. 

According to Thomas Morton of the University of Exeter’s psychology department who led the Ages 2.0 project in the UK, “What can be surprising is just how important social connections are to cognitive and physical health.”

 

So What’s Holding Us Back?

The issue is that most people don’t have access to the tools and training they need. Even for those who have basic knowledge of how to use the Internet, for example, grasping new styles of technology and constantly changing interfaces can be a struggle. 

The aging process can bring about certain cognitive changes in a person that have an impact on one’s ability to adapt, and this can make it harder to learn new skills. Even a relatively minor upgrade to an app can throw a person for a loop if it means he or she cannot figure out how to access the old functionality using the new interface.

Celebrating Active Aging

Today’s older population is the most active group of seniors in history. Many are  determined to stay relevant at work and connected with friends and family. It’s essential that they use the technologies that are out there to mitigate feelings of loneliness and social isolation, by speaking the same “language” as their children and grandchildren and be part of their lives by, for example, seamlessly seeing photos their loved ones share. Leveraging the technologies more fully provides older adults with new opportunities to enjoy life and be able to learn and be entertained by what’s out there. 

Leveraging Technology to Support the Elderly

Today’s popular technologies have a significant role to play in supporting this process, with innovative solutions designed for older adults encouraging ongoing interaction with social media communities, in addition to providing access to online resources.

What’s key for older individuals in today’s society is to explore new and better ways to eliminate the digital divide that hurts a notable percentage of the elderly population, and to maximize technology’s contributions to supporting an active, engaged, and connected experience.