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Real seniors are rightfully skeptical about technology like smartphones

Surveys are foundational for design/marketing – but they don’t include real seniors.  You need to make the set of slides to launch the product, service, or new website. Time to pitch the investment group, the board of directors, the distribution partners, the audience. Yet for the oldest adult markets and product segments that need seniors, the real seniors, individuals (aged 75+) are rarely surveyed – at least that we can tell, because their responses are dumped, clumped and lumped into the 65+ group.

Lin∙kage’s mission breaks the mold, surveys the very old.  And this matters – life expectancy lengthens, and so does the market for offerings that meet the need of older adults.  Since 2011, the organization has fielded surveys of older adults about their use of technology.  First they fielded  a paper survey (2011) that revealed interest but little ownership – 70% of the 1789 responders were OVER the age of 75.  Then in 2013, Next Generation Response Systems received 1114 survey responses, 53% of the responders to another paper survey were over the age of 75. In both of these surveys, smartphones were not, uh, popular among the oldest group.

It’s 2016 – Lin∙kage fielded another survey, expectations about technology have changed. This time 401 older adults are surveyed by Lin∙kage via an e-mailed link, again more than half of the responders are aged 75+. While smartphone ownership has grown, it is still obvious that as age range rises past 75, smartphone ownership drops – and the comments sharpen from individuals aged 80+: “Life is NOT a constant emergency.  With navigation systems, no one has any idea where they are in relation to the world.” And this: “In spite of all the advances out there, it is virtually ruining our youth’s manners.”  But also: “It’s the future…I have not wanted to be left behind.”

Look at your smartphone – carefully. Put on your (mental) age suit.  Imagine it is you who has had an easy-to-use clamshell phone that enables you to get a call and a text message from a family member. Now pick up your smartphone – that device that does triple duty as a camera, calorie counter, map, search engine, newspaper, note taker, calculator, music player and wake-up alarm.  For starters. Remember that 50% of the 75+ population (Pew) is now online, compared to 7% online fifteen years ago.   Why don’t they want this remarkable device? “New gadgets seem to be programmed by young people who assume that the user will know what to do in a confusing situation.” Exactly.

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Regarding "New gadgets seem to be programmed by young people who assume that the user will know what to do in a confusing situation" -- when I teach, present to, or write for seniors I remind them that they've spent a lifetime learning. They weren't born knowing how to cook, dance, drive, sew, play musical instruments, or much of anything else. Technology is just another area in which to explore, learn, grow, and shine. Problems occur only when people -- or seniors themselves -- expect seniors to be instant experts. There's plenty resources for learning technology -- in-person classes, online demonstrations and education, books, one-on-one tutoring, friends/relatives coaching, etc. Gadgets are what they are. Instead of hoping that they'll be simpler (but then they'd lose modern function!) or simply shunning them, it's worth the effort to learn and enjoy them, as seniors have spent lifetimes doing in other areas.

Do not own one.  They are very expensive both to buy and on a monthly fee basis.  Until someone can show me the value in having one - a smartphone is a non starter in my life.  Nothing is that important that I need immeadiate connectivity.  

The value of a smartphone is there for you to discover. I've had a cell phone since they were wearable -- 1995 or so, starting with a brick clipped to my waist. I migrated through a series of ever-smaller flipphones but didn't get a smartphone until recently. That amused my friends, since my background is technology and I'm now a freelance technology writer. My wife and I recently bought smartphones -- iPhone 6s for her, iPhone 6s Plus (larger screen) for me. Why? Because it's clearly convenient having the convenience/function of a phone plus ... whatever we want. My iPhone mirrors the apps I had on my iPad, so I have weather, traffic, maps, multiple shopping websites, multiple publications, community links and resources, multiple public safety connections, a couple web browsers, Microsoft Office suite, health resources (personal and public), navigation, texting, email, TV/movie info, dining information and connections, travel, online banking, etc. All my apps are free; I haven't bought any. They're easy to find/install/evaluate/update/remove. I'm not a gamer so I haven't installed any -- but plenty are out there, free/fee. My app assortment won't be yours but you might find some/many you like and benefit from.

The phones weren't cheap but our calling plan is. We'd been with Verizon Wireless on a legacy plan no longer available, paying about $38/month including all taxes/fees) for our TWO phones. Now, with Consumer Cellular, we pay about $48 for two phones for a plan with many more shared minutes/month and more shared data/month than we've even come close to using. Consumer Cellular has been brilliant so far -- outstanding customer support and vastly flexible calling/data plans. If you want to try it, contact me and I'll give you a referral link saving you $10 and earning me $10 for referral. I have no connection with them besides being a delighted customer.

So --- a smartphone is a flexible tool, like a car/stove/television/whatever -- maybe you don't need one, and I'm not arguing that you should have one. I'm just suggesting that it's potentially more powerful than just "immediate connectivity".

As a user of the amazing Doro Liberto 825 and having tested devices with many real seniors I can only say that not All smartphones are the same, or indeed real seniors. Have a look at our thinks like you video, then lest the device. It is truly life changing for many and inspiring. Nice article though Laurie, always good to read your views.

They don't see benefits from using these devices. Our goal is to create platforms and applications that will make smartphones useful for seniors.

Thank you Laurie for sharing the wisdom from this age demographic.

This is true of today but what about tomorrow? We are all moving towards this threshold, and if we make it, more and more of us will be used to the new-new technology and this will be just a moment in history. Home Hubs now connect wearables to the cloud with little required action by the user.

True Rik, that more and more people in a few years will be used to the NEW NEW technology.  There are a few factors though that our research is showing to be true.  One, if you have a disease such as Parkinson's or Macular Degeneration, these devices, no matter how savvy the user, are difficult at best.  The second is the mindset of the older adult.  It isn't that these individuals necessarily have issues with the technology but the idea of being that connected and attached to something.  It becomes a want vs. true need in many cases and the fact is many people state they just don't want it any more.

A smartphone with NLUI (Natural Language User Interface) could probably be very helpful. Yet, the speech recognition engine has to adapt to the "senior talk." Shouldn't "age-friendliness" be finally recognized as a human right across the world, starting right here in our country?

I don't agree and many older consumers use smart phones and are tech savy if you show them how to use it, or maybe we are not making our devices and applications easy enough for everyone to use.

Jon, you are probably talking about the boomers. The real problem is not the smart phone but its user interface: screen tap and screen size are not age-friendly at all!! The Natural Language UI is probably the achievable solution for the foreseeable future. We probably need to carefully look into what Xiaomi+Baidu are doing with NLUI for mobile devices in China. The number of people simply talking to their phone on the busy streets of Beijing is astonishing... And for the "senior talk style" issue we can learn a lot from the experiences of a brilliant Israeli company (VoiceItt) and from what it offers for people with speech impairment.

There are much older seniors who are curious, even skilled with new tech- engineers, for instance. I'm no longer surprised by the small, consistent percentage of vibrant older seniors - often community leaders - in our pilots who are excited to try smart watches and ipads, and whose families insist on buying them smart phones. 

Laurie, any in-depth published Usage studies? The other side of "what is so" is "so what?". Would be interesting to find- and compare- the key differentiating attributes on a spectrum between "no way/non-users" and "heavy users" of smart phones. 


What a wonderful article, Laurie. I appreciate you posting it here as it touches on so many important and factual problems with technology and the elderly.

Real seniors are rarely surveyed for anything. In medicine they are mostly excluded from trials. We need to recognize the immense importance of this group as the baby boomers grow older. Technology needs to be simple enough for those who do not see or hear well and whose fingers find texting difficult.

Thank you for bringing this up Dr. Morely.  This is why our company exists.  We bring the voice of the older adult consumer directly to companies so this population is heard.

Any information on what the 75+ people do want re communication content, not just the technology used? Or longitudinal information as more people who have learned to use a smartphone in their 60's age into this age group?

Really great -- love this! How do we use technology and innovations to bring older adults together? How do we work with designers so that they can learn to design WITH the community and not FOR the community. Bridging Community Organizing processes with Design Processes I think is a great start! 

I contend many consultants, start ups, and entrenched tech players have jumped the conceptual "gun" when it comes to how best to provide value to seniors utilizing mobile front-end solutions. Keep an eye on how PointNurse solves some of these problems in healthcare.

Spot on. Now let's do a study to find how many of these same seniors (75+) use TVs?? Hmmm. Too obvious?! Kudos to you / Link·age Connect / Sue for the great report! s

See Figure 9.

Spot on as always. I think the issue is reflective of a larger cultural one and that is that we are still a "youth directed" culture. Look how long it's taken advertising to embrace diversity in ethnicity, race, sexual preference, and older adults relative to its history and still, youth predominates. If you have young people designing these products, racing to market with them, grabbing VC money along the way, with many not taking the time to really understand the mindset and physical changes an older adult experiences, no wonder these products, services, nd apps don't penetrate the older market. Take the time to really talk to them, like Techenhancedlife.com does in their discussion groups. They'll tell you. They also have great ideas. Check out the site - it's chock full of info from the 75+ group.

Hi Candiece,

I think it is a great thing that young people are involved in new technologies for seniors because it is an underserved market. I am based in Canada, where we have a public healthcare system. But there are simply not enough beds for seniors at hospitals or nursing homes. Private retirement home can cost up to $10k per month. Private home care companies charge up to $30 per hour for light housekeeping. We need the enthusiasm, creativity and fearlessness of young people to challenge the status quo. There must be a way for seniors to age in place safely, independently and affordably via remote monitoring or sensor technology.

I think anyone marketing a smart phone should be thoroughly aware of what health literacy is! The survey is dated, but in the last national survey of health literacy, only 3% of seniors were very proficient in health literacy--which includes cognition (which would affect ability to deal with a lot of apps etc.) as well as sensory (touch hearing vision) impairments which would affect start phone use--as well as any manuals etc.. that go with them. The CDC also has recommendations on marketing to people over 75 vs. boomers. I agree with Laurie--although I know the picture will change. Just sayin' folks--I live with HL and am happy to give input instead of seeing more products with limited shelf life and/or manuals impossible to read by older folks.

We need to clarify the definition of "real seniors". Anyone over 50 can join AARP, yet 50 hardly seems "senior" these days (50 is the new 30!). When I think of seniors, I think of different segments, in part by 10-year age segments (eg. 70-80 is probably different than the 90-100 group in a number of ways).

Few do even basic research on seniors that result in a great product - much less look at what inspires them.