How many times have you heard your children, grandchildren, or any other younger person talk dismissively, or even mockingly, about the way that older adults use technology? They might find it amusing, and they might think that the blanket generalizations they’re making are true for all seniors, but the truth is more complicated.
First of all, tons of seniors actually do engage with technology on a regular basis: more than 70% are on the internet, up from just 14% in the year 2000, and older adults are the fastest growing demographic in the online world! Second of all, any difficulties older adults have with adopting new technologies are probably the result of various factors that are both external and internal, meaning how tech companies operate, your brain and physiology, and your wants and needs all play a role in your relationship with technology. So let’s take a look at why you might feel like you’re avoiding certain tech, how you can make using tech easier for you, and why it might actually be good for you to go all techie!
Seniors Vs. Technology?
Like we said, seniors are out there in massive numbers in cyberspace; not only that, but adults between 50 and 64 are just as likely to use smartphones as anyone in the U.S. (83% have a smartphone and 91% use computers), and 94% of people over 50 say they use technology to stay connected to friends and loved ones. And you know what else? People over 50 had spent around $84 billion on tech products by the end of the last decade- for themselves, not their grandkids! So is it really accurate to say that seniors and technology just don’t mix? Well, yes and no – but mostly no. We say partly yes because there actually are some barriers to seniors feeling comfortable with technology, whether they’re internalized or come from an external source. For example, if you’re an older adult, maybe you have the following concerns:
- You worry about feeling “tethered” to your phone or other device
- You have privacy concerns, or worry about being targeted by scams, like a 2019 Social Security scam that cost seniors $38 million
- While you’d be willing to learn new technology skills when that tech has value for you, or when it seems designed with you in mind, it often doesn’t feel that way with the products out there. In other words, according to Bran Knowles, a researcher who focuses on the intersection between data systems and social responsibility, the barrier might just be “a misalignment of values and products.”
Which brings us to the other big issue with seniors and tech: if older adults do have concerns about, or limitations with, using technology, big tech companies often aren’t addressing them, or taking seniors’ wants or needs into account when designing products and software. You probably want to use tech in a way that seems valuable to you; not only that, but you might actually have physical limitations that tech companies aren’t addressing, and tech companies don’t seem to recognize that they need to make products and software intuitive for everyone. Think about it this way: if you’d grown up speaking French as a second language, you’d be pretty proficient at it, but try to become bilingual at 70? It’s just not going to come as naturally to you.
There are also things that are just inevitable parts of aging that can make tech seem frustrating; for example:
- Vision that is not as sharp as it once was makes texting challenging
- Minor hearing loss can make the audio on many devices seem insufficient
- Reduced manual dexterity can make small buttons difficult to push
- Losses in touch sensitivity can mean that touch screens react too fast
Tech companies just don’t seem to see seniors as stakeholders in their world, making them seem almost as dismissive as the grandchildren who think you’ll never learn how to use a smartphone “properly.” But again, it’s a whole chicken and egg issue: is it really that seniors can’t learn to use tech or is it that tech isn’t working for them?
What You Can Do
While we can’t make big tech companies change overnight and erase the concerns about privacy that come with being online, or change the addictive nature of all that stuff floating out there on our devices, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t express our concerns to them, and make it clear that seniors need to have a seat at the table. Remember, you’re the fastest growing demographic online, so your voice should certainly matter!
With that being said, there are some things you can do in the short term to make tech less frustrating to use. For example:
- Use a stylus with your phone or tablet – A simple stylus that costs only a few dollars (or some phones even come with them) can vastly improve accuracy in typing on a touch screen.
- Try swyping instead of typing – If you’re not feeling the whole flying thumbs texting action that a lot of younger people use, try “swyping,” or sliding your finger or stylus from one letter to the next, and letting your phone do the typing for you.
- Use voice dictation instead of typing – You don’t actually have to text at all; you can tell your phone exactly what you want to say – and most phones are shockingly accurate these days!
- Get an external speaker or headphones – These days, we’re spoiled for choice with inexpensive wireless speakers and headphones, so you don’t have to spend a lot to help amplify your devices.
And, while you’re trying out the techniques above, remember to use them to contact the big tech companies and voice your opinion on their products! And remember, too, to vote with your dollars and only patronize companies that you believe are interested in seeing seniors as valuable customers.
Can Big Tech Have Big Benefits?
We’ve talked a lot about why seniors often don’t seem to engage as enthusiastically or effectively with technology, but what about reasons why you should engage with it? Well, it turns out that learning new technological skills can be extremely beneficial to your brain health, and even help keep dementia at bay. Certain studies have shown that there is a link between memory and learning, including one that found that, after a period of three months, people who learned a new technological skill, like digital photography, had the most beneficial results with cognition, especially memory function, compared to study participants who just socialized, did crossword puzzles, or listened to music. And when some of the participants were studied again one and three years later? Researchers found long-lasting positive results.
So how can you tap into these benefits? Well, it takes more than just learning a new skill every once in a while; you’ve got to exercise your brain everyday – but luckily, you’ve got a handy dandy device right in your pocket that will allow you to do that! Try some of the following techie activities that can both boost your brain power and make you more comfortable noodling around with your devices:
- Experiment with digital photography, using different filters and editing software, as well as creating and sharing albums
- Learn a new language on your phone with an app
- Try programming your smart home device to do new things, like control your lights or a camera attached to your doorbell
- Learn a new skill, get DIY help, or dive into a new hobby with YouTube videos
- Set up your own website with a simple to use, free app that is geared towards non-techies, like Wix or Weebly
The possibilities are endless when it comes to what you can do with technology, so don’t stop there! And don’t let any physical limitations stop you, either, when there are workarounds for almost any problem. You don’t have to become a tech whiz overnight, and you don’t have to love everything about technology, but if you find something of value for you in using a certain device or software, like staying connected with loved ones or exercising your brain for a healthier future, then dive right in and give it a try – you can do it!