A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
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The future of aging and tech via the lens of today's seniors
Surveys drive assumptions, not always correct. Let’s imagine a world in which a survey organization deliberately sampled technology use beginning with adults aged 65 and peaking at age 100. Yeah, right. The most frequent sampler, Nielsen Wire, begins at 18 and winds down at “65+.” And they are not alone. From these and other surveys, we are often led to believe that a thirty year range of seniors buy and behave exactly the same. Now consider how silly we’d find studies that lumped 20-year-olds and 50-year-olds into the same behavioral buying bucket.
For a change, flip the Nielsen cohort sampling upside down. Yet with more than 5 million Americans aged 85+, the typical survey strategy will soon run out of steam. For a rare and compelling contrast, consider the Linkage survey of 1789 seniors aged 65 to 100, sponsored and conducted during the summer of 2011 by Linkage of Mason, Ohio. The survey was delivered to 5000 seniors who were provided with a paper document -- enabling 500 of the responders to add their comments along with their answers. The resulting numbers tell a no-surprise story about the lack of market penetration of tablets, smart phones, eReaders, and laptops among a population in which 71% of the responders were beyond age 75; 51% had an income of less than $25,000 per year; and 53% were renters. "My TV is an old Magnavox and it is hanging on just for me!"
Behind the survey is a story about advanced aging and priorities. Responders had PCs and some laptops, but only 33% had Internet access (below the most recent 42% of aged 65+ published by Pew Research). Yet 66% saw the benefits of using technology to connect with family. "I love when my son goes online and reads me the newspaper from my home town. I am blind." Advanced age breeds insecurity about safety: a surprisingly large number (35%) had personal emergency response pendants, although vendors would say that only 4% of the potential market has been penetrated. Terminology baffles: "I don’t know what these things are: Tablet, Wireless network, CHF Weight Scale, Home sensors." And lack of money prevents use: some responders graciously expressed interest in but financial inability to pay for what the survey asked about. "Most are of interest…unfortunately, we cannot always have everything we want."
The plea – someone we trust to teach us. One of the ironies of the survey came from juxtaposition of comment and data: "Technology is great, especially for younger people; the elderly need someone to teach us personally." Yet who is the most trusted resource? The largest segment (41%) of seniors named the doctor as the person who should help them learn about new tech. Yet the average time of a doctor’s visit is now 13 minutes. What is the likelihood of tech guidance -- assuming the doctor had the knowledge to guide? But a doctor’s waiting room could show videos about various tech tools -- or outline the benefits of finding health information online and where in the community that access could be obtained.
Meet the future of boomers. One of the smug clichés I frequently hear is how the future will be different for baby boomers. How many of you smile confidently and assert that when boomers reach their upper decades, they will take their tech literacy with them? We are convinced that the oldest old today are the very last generation to take such limited advantage or believe in the benefit of the touted tech of the moment. But we are kidding ourselves. The accelerating pace of tech change will leave those who are resistant to rapid change completely in the future dust. And those who are resistant to rapid change will be those who have lived the longest and want to hold on to what they know and like. "I am not very much interested in the vast variety of technological equipment – it is quite overwhelming to me. I am 90 years old." And because coolness, usability and low-cost access are rarely introduced as a bundle that is cheaper than the sum of its parts and therefore fits within lower incomes, we will always be divided into a society of early adopters, mainstream buyers and skeptics, or those who cannot afford or lack interest in the next new, new thing, whatever that will turn out to be.
To download the Linkage survey, click here: