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Smartphone usage by older adults is up -- why?

Times change, so do phones. One year ago according to the latest from Pew, 18% of the 65+ had a smartphone – today, 27% have them. Why? Well, for one thing, when a phone breaks, smartphones are easy to find in the store as directed by a rep and online, while ‘basic’ phones (Verizon has 6 unique basic phones) are buried under pre-paid plans. AT&T's two unique brands are very difficult to find, with a handful of non-contract Go Phones – found online after wading through a gazillion smartphone choices. Also, 41% of people aged 65-69 are smartphone owners, perhaps side effects of working longer, greater longevity, families with pics, videos, and chats that must be seen NOW. But still, more than 70% of the 41 million 65+ still do not have smartphones. This likely isn’t because of the cost of the plans (43% of smartphone owners pay between $50 and $100) – only 10% of the 65+ are statistically classified as living in poverty.

The device is a useful irritant -- or has irritating utility. Let’s assume that the 65+ population has the same (or more) aggravations noted by the general smartphone user base. Per Pew, nearly half experience content as not displaying properly on occasion, experiencing poor or dropped signal quality and apps (39% for 50+ age group) not working correctly. Thirty-seven percent of the group aged 65+ uses their smartphone for turn-by-turn navigation, although one might bet that this is one of those apps 'not working correctly' -- at least some of the time. (Meanwhile, sales of GPS devices continue to drop year-over-year.)  Interestingly, despite the GPS app hassles, getting directions was the top issue reported when phone owners didn’t have their smartphone with them. On the other hand, 53% of smartphone owners, likely the same ratio for the 65+, have used their smartphones when observing or experiencing an emergency – like a car accident.  

Carriers also just want you to be free – to pay for data via apps. 78% of smartphone owners over the age of 50 characterized smartphone ownership as freeing (versus 66% of those aged 18-49) and also as compared to thinking of the device as a 'leash.' (I guess that depends on the meaning of 'freeing.') As for predictions, smartphone ownership will continue to accelerate among the younger-old demographic, according to Deloitte. And no doubt because carriers really want to sell you pricey data plans. And they are so DONE with supporting, fixing, or marketing clamshell phones. But there’s work to be done. As the Deloitte report noted, carriers have been relatively unpersuasive at getting older users to download any of the 2 million or more apps. Gee, I wonder why.  Because other than email, maps, the web, social and messaging apps (aka Facebook and Twitter), and a camera -- they are mostly useless and therefore not used? 

What will make the aged 70+ get a smartphone?  I predict not much and rightly so. As 32% of the 70-74 ages and 12% of the 75+ affirm, they’re pretty useless if you aren’t Tweeting that you’ve just arrived at the bar, don’t want to surf the web just now, can wait for that cute picture of little Susie the dog, already have a GPS on the dashboard, and know full well that most of your email is spam.  And if any hand/finger mobility or vision issues have arrived, getting that smartphone to behave can be one of life’s nightmares. And that’s AFTER the initial setup.  While a few companies like Great Call and Consumer Cellular offer older adults various smartphones and plans for seniors, training on how to use them is a must. There are AARP TEK workshops, local programs sprinkled here and there around the country like BLueHair Technology Group in Atlanta, for example, or OATS in New York. And then there are the stores themselves. If you know someone who is really new to smartphones, tell them to be like a friend of mine, now aged 69 – who went back to ask additional questions about her new phone every single day – and will keep going every time there is an upgrade or a new feature she doesn't understand.

Please be sure to check out Boomer Health Tech Watch, our parallel site that tracks boomers and Digital Health, wearables, and mHealth!

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Boomers have smartphones. When they become seniors they will NOT be giving up their smartphones. As they age and inevitably develop age-related maladies, they will be coaxed or motivated to become smartphone mHealth users. How do I know this? The majority of my company's customers are over 55 years of age. They do not give up the arrhythmia management benefits of their AliveCor when they turn 65. In fact, they will need those benefits more as they age-in-place.


To my humble view most powerful Featuer is the Whatsup capability to Connect in real time the Multigeneration Family.

All the best
Shoshan Shacham
Homage for Life

With respect, David, I disagree with you about whether Boomers will keep their smart phones as they age. Of course, we're both speculating, and only a decade or so of real life will tell us what reality is. My perspective is formed not by AARP's 50+ definition of a senior, but by Laurie's definition of a senior as 75+.

From my perspective, there are two fundamental drivers as to why the majority of seniors (75+) aren't on smart phones today, and won't be on smart phones tomorrow:

  • The physical maladies of aging don't care how technologically sophisticated you were in your youth. If it's too small, you can't see it, you can't hear it, and it's too hard to touch with tremors.
  • When Boomers are 75+, the technology you can buy at the consumer storefront will be as different to them as today's smart phones are to today's 75+ population. To see this, calculate how far away you are from 80, and then think back to cell phone capabilities that many years ago. Twenty-five years ago, I had a brick cell phone. Twenty years ago, I was excited to have a cell phone that had a single game on it (the snake that eats its tail). Twenty-five years from now, what will smart phones be - and will I care at all about learning the new interfaces?
  • I do believe that Boomers will be on the Internet even as 75+ seniors - but they'll do so with interfaces that work with the maladies of aging. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next decade as the Elder Boomers begin to cross 75.

    This is a debate that time will answer. Seniors (65+) weren't the first adopters of cell phones but virtually all have them now. Web browsing on PCs and Laptops is used by many seniors (Pew has numbers). What the latest data shows is that smartphone penetration continues to increase in seniors. The smartphone era began only 8 years ago (iPhone introduced in 2007). 8 years from now we will have an answer what the final penetration will be.

    It's a shame Apple doesn't market more to a senior market. Ios actually has impressive native features for people with vision, hearing, dexterity and attention impairments. Ultimately, one could even operate an iphone with a simple binary switch. I haven't researched it, but other online info indicates Android is less adaptable.

    I'm 67, and learning to use those tools is now on my to-do list. The thing is, one's willingness to fight through new technology seems to decline with age. If I get to where I need an MPERS system, I want to be able to handle it, even if my fingers get clunkier.

    A small grumble: The graphic design of this web page is NOT age-friendly. It's good that there are no blinking distractions, but 9-point type is unkind (my vision is corrected to normal) and light blue on gray does not offer appropriate contrast. Uxmatters has some suggestion.

    I'm not sure your aware of a wonderful alternative in the MPERS market. My mother-in-law has the Better Alerts System and she loves it. It allows her go where she wants knowing that all 6 of us are just a button press away. It also has fall detection which is nice because it will give us her GPS location anywhere she is in seconds in the event of an emergency. It also has medicine reminders but she just takes supplements so that is not that important to us. Just thought I'd share:)

    Although it was in the blog post, here are the Pew breakdowns of smartphone ownership:

    mPERS would seem to be a fit for the 75+, but smartphone penetration is low.

    65-69: 41%

    70-74: 32%

    75+: 12%

    Can you provide the source for your statistics about the use of smart phones by the elderly (especially those over 75)?  I would like to use this for a report to a pro bono organization dealing with the problems of the elderly.

    Pew Research... linked at the beginning Ming of that post.

    Have you ever tried pushing those dumb little spots with your fingers - they cover 2 or 3 spots! I have to use a stylus and now I'm back to 1 finger typing. Hope my glasses keep working as the letters sure are small

    It's great to see older adults getting more into smart phone usage. It's got a lot of useful resources for older people, it's just learning the technology that changes and updates so quickly is a very daunting task. I agree with your thought that not much is going to quickly change how many older adults use smart phones - either they're willing to learn or they aren't.

    Oily hands interfere with touch screen sensitivity.  A stylus can get coated with lotion causing interference too.  Wash hands and stylus with dish soap for a better touch screen connection.  Trifocal glasses can cause finger placement errors.  Ask your optometrist what she would recommend for improving accuracy and focus upon your phone screen.   Phone shapes and sizes vary, so bring your phone to demonstrate your preferred viewing orientation.  Recall how awkward using a computer mouse was at first.  Be patient with yourself and practice.


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