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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:



You really provide a brilliant summary of recent surveys on technology and older users. Moreover, you capture accurately the arrogance of many boomers and their children that they will somehow be 'better' at tech than their 'tech-phobic' parents and grandparents. This tech-smugness will soon be squashed as they experience an accelerating velocity of change that will make the technology that we think gives us a learning advantage into a historical artifact rather than a platform for future learning. Age matters less than the attitude to seize, not just learn, the "new". Nice post! Joe

It's fun to speculate both positive and negative when it comes to predicting how Boomers will respond to the "accelerating velocity of change" when it come to adapting new technology. Our argument would be that the generation that was confused by programming the clock on their VCR (remember the flashing 12:00?) are indeed quite different than Boomers are when it comes to adapting new technology. So comparisons are difficult, at best.

On the other side, thinking about how Boomers will keep up, we think that answer can be summed up in one word: Siri. Simply asking the technology to do something for you does not take a degree in rocket surgery. Siri is the Model T of what's to come.

We think Boomers will be fine.

The Pew studies suggested long ago that those who have used it for work are most likely to be still using it. Use of Internet increases with income. There are also kiosks and computers in libraries and low income housing computer centers. Elders may not have the "coolest" toys (although some will continue to chase that...I will), but they will be comfortable negotiating services on their own because they will have done so for travel, finances, shopping. At a minimum they will find a way to access basic/Internet technology to control/maintain their own lives. Housing has served upper income (CCRCs, can afford Internet and computers) and low-income (subsidized housing)...all they need are people who are acclimated; most will be acclimated if not on their own, through work experience. The middle income markets are huge; how will they access services? Look a the many on-line sites that allow people who provide a service (housekeeping, pet sitting, companion, even transportation...long the most needed service in most communities) and those looking for a service to find each other. The result: use services when you want to (or can afford to), provided at the local level. Move to housing (to reduce maintenance).

We shouldn't be so smug. However, elements of universal design (a large handle on a spatula is not "dumbing down") will probably make all tech easier to use in the future. Or at least I hope so.

I've always thought of new technology as pick and choose. While some technology will be mandatory, in my book (C)2005 I wrote:

The computer/internet ethos for most Baby Boomers is that they pick and choose what technology they want to use, buy, or install. Some are all over Skype, video and music uploading and downloading, research, education, travel planning, shopping — while eschewing blogging, communities, and web page design. Or it’s the other way around. Or variations thereof. When it comes to new technology, most Baby Boomers learn only about what interests them, what they believe will be useful. They don’t feel the need to know everything there is to know about technology, computers, and the web.

Thank you for this, Laurie; and to Chuck, Matt and others for their comments. I say, "Amen" and add "Aha!" to the fact that the Survey was MAILED! And congratulate Linkage on the wisdom and PATIENCE to conduct a study wherein the tool was at least as important to the outcome as the analysis.

Laurie’s blog post this week hit the nail on the head regarding the problem we are seeing nationwide. It shows that companies are developing new technologies when the fundamentals haven’t been mastered yet. New apps, devices, and tablets are great, but they all require Internet to maximize their utility. Technology for seniors is seen as complicated, so as you mention, seniors need a ‘trusted resource’ to teach them about it. The majority sees the benefits of using technology and Internet access to connect with family (66%), but isn’t purchasing it because they either can’t afford it or there isn’t a pathway of teaching and support.

We see the exact same problems. Internet is too expensive for most seniors. There are a lot of seniors or their families that could afford to buy it, but don’t because the learning process is perceived as complicated or they don’t want to handle the calls from their parents. Properties are defaulting to a computer lab and WiFi in the common areas, which helps but doesn’t really get seniors ‘online’ and allow them to access all of the new technologies that are coming out at their convenience in their own units. If a resident wants their own service, then it is up to them to buy it from the cable or telephone company. This is expensive, $39.99-69.95 after promotional pricing runs out, and the incumbents don’t provide the support that seniors need. There is a solution, but it requires properties to look beyond the local cable or phone company. I know of at least one company that provides an affordable Internet solution exclusively for seniors, provides a suite of training tools to the residents, answers their technology questions, and works to be a trusted resource for technology advancement. With these fundamentals taken care of, we (the senior housing industry) could finally leverage the new technologies that are being developed to improve the lives of seniors and increase property’s operating efficiencies.

This question is in regards to the statement above where the author writes that he knows of at least one company that provides an affordable Internet solution exclusively for seniors...what company is that? I've recently been looking into high tech support/solutions specifically for seniors and have found very little. Any information you could share would be greatly appreciated. Sincerely, Karen Doubleday

Like, Karen Doubleday, I would be interested to learn more about affordable internet solutions being proposed. Thank you, Emily Abel

Philips is running a discussion thread for the next week (through Feb 29) looking at barriers (globally or nationally) to tech adoption by older adults.

Please offer your thoughts in this attached Creating Livable Cities LinkedIn Group.



Such a good column, Laurie.  You have highlighted the greatest divide, after health status, between the over 65's who are still plugged in to the information age and those who have dropped off.  I hear it all the time as seniors grumble about how their iphones are too complicated and they need three different remotes just to watch tv and where the heck is the on/off button on the new laptop their son-in-law gave them for Christmas. I've been an early adopter of computers going back to the 80's, because being a writer, I have to keep up.

More Boomers will have work experience with the Internet, but the acceleration of change will still require a mass educational effort to keep the 65 to 85's in the loop.  What a great opportunity for Area Agencies and Aging to develop senior tech educational centers -- not only for learning but group stimulation.  A great platform for future politicians.

Gail Sheehy

Author, Passages in Caregiving


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