Are older adults living offline lives – now? It’s so tough predicting the distant future when the pace of adoption accelerates. The Boston Globe ‘Ideas’ column on the Future of Old interviewed a plethora of pundits on just how social our online lives might be, so different and remarkable when today’s 30-year-olds turn 70 in 2050. Think how much of a contrast that video game playing, cat video viewing generation would be to today’s old folk – struggling with isolation, boredom and Alzheimer’s (43% of people over the age of 85 show symptoms, cites writer Leon Neifakh.)
Oops – today’s Wall Street Journal paints a different picture. In a charming article about grandparents who are pushed online by their grandchildren, the WSJ assembled a compelling graphic of stats from comScore and Pew: On average, older adults, 65+ spend almost 35% of their time online, more than 18-24 year olds. People over the age of 55 account for a slightly larger share of Facebook users than those 17 and under. These stats have not yet netted out what online means, either. Consider the acceleration of adoption of smart phones -- overtaking ‘dumb’ phones next year or the year after? Are you online if you’re checking a social networking site on a mobile phone? What about a tablet? Given the stampede for iPad 2s and thriving market for scalpers, that’s hard to say -- except that the offline isolation of older adults is dwindling in inverse proportion to the rate at which grandchildren and peer pressure push them onto an Internet-like access method.
So let’s say that 30-40 years from now is really just around the corner. In a recent report, Connected Living for Social Aging, a broad range of interviewees and AARP’s Jody Holtzman helped craft a definition of Connected Living: “using technology to enable people to achieve aspirations and live their best life.” You saw this Connected Living in action this past winter when virtual online communities sprang up to cope with the snowstorms on Lakeshore Drive (‘Please rescue me’) and in Boston (‘Please help me shovel snow’). This past month saw the launch of more smart phone based emergency response applications (vSOS and Guardly) which include older adults in their target market. An aging statistic, so to speak, may be that at least 26% of the 50+ market plays games online. Who else is noticing that percentages from research firms seem obsolete the day after are published? Within 2 years, what may be the most interesting is to look at growth rates over a 3 year period – and project out a rate of accelerated adoption that shows a steep upward line for the 75+ population.
Older adults will rapidly become ‘immersed’ in multi-media, multi-devices. Whether it is Facebook, Google Talk, playing a multi-player game, or commenting on a newspaper column, we are moving inside a garden of interaction modes -- of engaging with children, grandchildren, and people we haven’t seen in years. The pace of entrance into this garden is accelerating and one day we will look back and notice that it mirrors other groundswells of uptake from our past. Remember when folks didn’t want to put their credit card online? Now we just want to keep our IDs from being stolen and shared on the street. The so-called digital divide that is keeping some seniors out of this garden is preventing them from accessing a host of benefits – including benefits themselves. Has anyone noticed how so many organizations offer a discount for transactions done online and that Social Security just stopped sending paper checks?
Design for all, now is a good time. So how will (must) tech vendors make it easier for all ages of us to interact, no matter who or where we are? To be fair, they have already stepped up the pace of Design for All – defined in the AARP report as: User experiences that appeal to all age groups, persisting across versions and devices. Who knew a few years ago about Swype, pinch, touch, voice search and voice-initiated (our own voice!) navigation? Now because we have it, we want it to be better and we want it to work on all tablets and phones. We want wider soft keys and more sensibly laid out physical keyboards, broader ability to enlarge and brighten what we’re looking at, speaking more of our instructions. We want Mrs. Smith's profile to be accessible through one command, whether Mrs. Smith is outside with her tablet, sitting at her son-in-law’s computer, or peering at her best friend’s smart phone. In addition to enabling multiple ‘immersion’ mechanics, let’s enable apps to log out and log in Mrs. Smith, with her portable Gmail-like ID – maybe it even IS her Gmail – and know that this particular Mrs. Smith has certain games she likes, Facebook friends, a stack of unread e-mails, newly delivered chats, and a suggestion about where to have lunch – and how to get there. Please don’t wait until 30-year-olds are 70 – or today’s boomers are 85.