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Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit, June 6, 2019

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Born this Way: The 50+ Folks are Digital Immigrants & Innocents

 Back in 2001, Marc Prensky coined the terms digital native and digital immigrants in this seminal paper. He said, "Today's average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV).  Computer games, email, the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging are integral parts of their lives." Today’s young adults are "native speakers" of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet. Digital natives have always been around technology and devices. They are accustomed to trying new tech, having things not work right, and talking to their digital native friends to group troubleshoot and learn what works best. 

Digital Immigrants are over 30 and use technology. Most adults over 30 who use technology are considered digital immigrants.  Prensky says that while we learn to adapt to this new digital environment, we always maintain, to some degree, our "accent" – our foot in the past. As a result, we learn differently and the older we are when we immigrate, the heavier our accent. Pensky’s favorite example of the "accent" is the "Did you get my email?" phone call. Digital immigrants most likely adopted technology as part of a job, school or volunteer activity and don’t have the fearlessness that the natives do. In fact, digital immigrants are used to training classes, IT departments and other support groups to help them weave their way to ultimately making the computer/Internet/cloud help them get some task accomplished.

Technology as a servant, not a master. A colleague recently illustrated this story with his own experience. He wanted to update three Apple devices; a phone, iPad and computer; and took them all to a local Apple store to have them updated. The Genius promptly told him he should do it himself. But, my friend insisted that they do it since he didn’t want to clutter his brain with all the learning that had to ensue to actually do the upgrading. The Genius agreed to help. After 2.5 hours and a lot of not-following-the-easy-directions, his devices were all upgraded to the 'cloud.' How long would it have taken a 'non-genius' to accomplish the same thing? And, how often does that anticipation of wasted time, frustration, or yelling at inanimate objects stop a digital immigrant from trying new and helpful gadgets, gizmos, software, apps, etc.?

Digital Innocents are not online and don’t think they need to be. Fast forward to 2012 when the Pew Internet & American Life folks coined the term Internet Innocents – referring to people who were not yet online. Not surprisingly, many of the innocents are older adults. The innocents don’t know why the rest of us think this Internet/computer stuff is useful. Pew says, "Among adults who do not use the Internet, almost half have told us that the main reason they don’t go online is because they don’t think the Internet is relevant to them.  And even for many of the 'core' internet activities we studied, significant differences in use remain, generally related to age, household income, and educational attainment."

Laurie Orlov has pointed out how dismal the statistics are from Pew and how this is marginalizing older adult’s participation in everyday life. This hit home yesterday in my AARP chapter’s board meeting – we had seven attendees, all women, and were discussing a new project to get the Merchant Marines recognized for their service in WWII. It was decided to share information via email since time was of the essence. The problem was that two of the seven attendees didn’t have email, didn’t intend to get email and were a smidge peeved that they couldn’t be included in the ongoing work. Is this the type of relevance that the innocents need to get online? I doubt it because of the perceived huge learning curve.

Hands-on and learn-by-doing. We’ve been conducting a technology survey in San Diego County to gauge older adults interests in and use of technology. After tallying 400 surveys by age decade (50s, 60s, 70s, and 80+), it’s apparent that the oldest have the least exposure to the newest technologies and, the farther away from the workforce you get, the more problematic technical support becomes. Family members aren’t good technical support in most cases. (Duh.) And, those younger adults, the digital native tech support people in Best Buy and Apple stores, think differently and can’t communicate effectively about technology with older adults and our "accents."

San Diego’s older adults have told us that they want 'hands-on' experiences with newer technologies and that they want to learn-by-doing from their peers. (Probably sick of asking their kids for help.) And, they told us that their two largest obstacles are "too-fast instructions that are over-their-head" and technical support. How can we overcome the obstacles? Our digital immigrants and innocents need immediate success in an older-adult friendly learning environment. They need to build the self-confidence and the self-help skills needed to flourish in today’s digital world.

Everything they need to know is on YouTube. My digital native 25-year-old son pointed out to me that everything we immigrants need to learn about technology is on YouTube. When he and I are jointly learning something, he turns to YouTube and I turn to text (online, but still text.) Recently, I wanted to find a new crochet stitch and took his advice. It was much easier to get the hang of it watching a YouTube video a few times than trying to figure it out from illustrations. And, with a bookmark, I could go right back to that site if I forgot how to do it. TedEd might be a great tool for senior-to-senior education.

Empowering the Is. Seniors are entering into the digital world. But, we still need to help many older adults understand why those newfangled iPads are a worthy replacement for their 10-year-old computer. We need to show them how cool and useful Skype is and then give them all the pointers they need to download, configure, find contacts and actually use Skype. We need to encourage the innocents to touch the iPad, to poke the Telikin, or to give their Presto email address to their friends and relatives. Those of us who have the wherewithal to help must do so. Otherwise, the digital divide will hurt or kill our friends and family through isolation. And, we can’t let that happen.


I know of a tech support company called Tree Rings that employs recently-retired people to staff their call support center. The owner told me they are knowledgeable enough about technology to learn quickly, extremely reliable, pleasant, and great working with elders who have questions. Most work part-time to supplement their incomes or just because they enjoy it. They may not be able to compete with India or Indonesia for sheer speed, but they are perfect for seniors. Maybe that could provide a model for tech learning centers or phone support.

I've read the same articles about Digital Natives/Immigrants and the Pew study, but this is not consistent with the experience I have with friends and neighbors. Granted, many 60+ folks are not real comfortable with IT. Many of my older friends/neighbors turn to me - the young 59-year-old - for help and advice, but they are far from "innocent" (I am self-employed as a web developer and technology consultant and was a "junior exploder" as a youth into all kinds of new newfangled technology). I live in an apartment house where the median age is probably early 70s and all of the folks here are on-line. I just helped my 84-year-old neighbor get her WiFi working again. Bless her, she had rebooted the router but not the modem and it was the modem that was the problem. Not at all an "innocent". I think the issue all comes down to vocabulary (there are 10 new tech terms created every day, most of them sounding pretty silly) and helping folks understand how some of these technologies work. But just like the automobile, you don't necessarily need to know how the car works to be able to drive it. The problem comes when the dang thing stops working! Unfortunately, IT today is similar to the automobiles of the 1930-40s and often "breaks down."  PS: I had to look up what Telikin and Presto were.

If there is one thing I have learned in my five years working at Presto – now as their CEO – it's that there is no such thing as one type of "senior." The range of experience and comfort with tech products is as wide as the Mississippi. But, for as many YouTube videos there are showing iPads being used by 102 year olds, there are also plenty of examples of 65 year olds who struggle with what most would see as "the simple stuff" in technology. As with most things in life, there really is no one-size-fits-all solution for everyone senior's needs. What is amazing is that there are many, many different solutions to different problems that ARE out there, just waiting to be discovered. Two examples in the post above, my company Presto and another, Telikin, are both examples of great solutions that "no one has ever heard about" even though they are readily "findable" with a quick Google search. Therein lies the problem. Because if someone doesn't know that a category of products exists, then they are at the mercy of Google's search algorithms to match what they type-in with the solutions for the problem they are looking to solve. For my company, if someone searched for "Presto" they find us easily. But if they search for "email for seniors" the results for Presto depend as much on my website's search engine optimization efforts and search engine advertising budget as they do with Google's search algorithms. And that is the problem for new solutions in product categories that aren't yet mainstream. Google, and other search engines, do not provide an easy way for consumers to "browse" for a topic. They are presented with a dizzying array of search results, many of which go unseen by the searcher. I am beginning to believe that a comprehensive online guide to all products and services that are targeted at the 50+ space might be a solution whose time has come. Call it the "library card catalog" organized by SUBJECT that could be the tool necessary to jumpstart this industry of products and services aimed at helping boomers and their elder family members. Gilbert Guide did it for senior residence facilities (now called the Senior Living Directory at Why not a comprehensive guide for aging products and services?

Besides being CEO of Presto, I am also the Chairman of the Aging Technology Alliance, a trade group of 70 companies in the aging space. I'm starting to wonder whether a comprehensive guide of products and services of ALL companies, not just those of the member AgeTek companies, might be what the industry needs right now to fuel its growth. I welcome any comments back to this blog.

- Peter Radsliff, PrestoCEO/AgeTek chairman ( or )

I wholeheartedly endorse they way you identified the problem, Peter, and the great solution you propose! I'd like to join the effort. I'll google on Aging Technology Alliance and (if the google gods cooperate) find you!

Well said, Peter. I am so bored with the lame excuses of people not willing to discover tech alternatives - like PRESTO (which is a fantastic communication tool for resisters). Truth is... people ARE left out (especially when it comes to not having email).

The 50+ age group takes in a lot of people, many of whom may be digital immigrants, but very successful ones. While the elderly may prefer to remain innocent, the boomer cohort itself is quite tech savvy, if not exactly sophistocated. We are learning quickly to use the technology that improves our lives, gets us the information we want, and allows us to communicate with our parents, kids, grandkids, and high school buddies. The tech market should take note as we make our buying decisions on the latest new gadgets!

We’re at a stage when seniors really fall into 3 categories:
1) Tech savvy or were in the next category but received the help they needed.
2) Are open to tech adoption, but need help.
3) Will never change or are unable to (health, dementia, etc)

The first category is the one that has been using for technology for many years. They bought an iPad, have a kindle, and email regularly. We need to count on them to provide the assistance and guidance to the 2nd category, which is by far the largest. These are our poster people of adoption, but are not the majority yet. We count on them to provide an example, peer influence, and peer support to the category 2 people.

For the second category, there was a time when technology was too complicated or expensive for many to adopt. That has changed though. There are low cost internet providers specifically for senior housing (SilverFox), there are easy to use devices (Telekin, Presto, iPad), and there is training and support (every senior focused company knows this and provides it). The only thing that stands in the way is a stakeholder to help guide them down this path. It could be a community adding SilverFox or Telekins or the adult child that buys it for them.

The third category is one that we can’t do much about. Technology will help us to provide care for them and there are exceptions to the rule of course, but they won’t be the ones adopting it on a regular basis in droves.

I challenge the senior stakeholders: support your senior technology providers and adopt them within your community.

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