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What Boomers Want from Technology 2009 and other aging theories

Microsoft and AARP -- boomers and technology. Yesterday's New York Times 'Bits' blog summarized a study dated October, 2009 -- funded by Microsoft and AARP and conducted through 60 dinner interviews in four cities of boomers age 50-60.  The comments posted on the NY Times website are more revealing (and scathing) about what boomers really want from technology (and as an added bonus, how younger folks really can't stand self-interested boomers). I suggest that rev 2 of this study analyze these and release an addendum.

  • Not a survey, a composite from focus groups. Beyond the Times comments, other critiques of the study, for example, Chuck Nyren's blog, have gone through it item by item to declare it to be old news, not quantitative, and not especially insightful. That's all true. But to be fair, it was not represented as a new, insightful, and quantitative study on AARP's website when AARP announced it in October (!!!) 2009, nor when Microsoft announced it on December 1, 2009 -- hence Times coverage on December 7, 2009.
  • Conversational tidbits prompted by the facilitator. Rather, it is what AARP says it is -- it is simply a set of conversations about how technologies (various) impact their lives, social, health, communication. It's worth a read -- and the quotes are extremely useful as illustrations/examples to reinforce what we already think or know about technology perceptions and perhaps get a few new ideas.
  • Surprise -- boomers want easy-to-use, self-healing tech. It might be tempting for marketers to sit down with this study to determine what baby boomers really want. For that matter, it might be tempting for Microsoft product managers to read it and use it that way. They will need other focus groups for that -- interviewer Michael Rogers of Practical Futurist was somewhat disingenuous in avoiding direct questions about Microsoft's own offerings (by name) and instead, obtaining comments about digital cameras and GPS devices. I liked the suggestion of a 'little angel that follows you along and keeps your computer working, remembering everything that's been done to the machine.' For anyone who has been harassed by their browser for being out of date with new versions, the 'angel' is here. For those who have installed a shared printer, no angel yet.  

What this means -- interesting, enjoyable, worrisome.  It's very appealing to pull out a decade demographic range, hold a focus group (or 4) and summarize the results -- potentially distracting tech companies into scrutiny because of the Microsoft-AARP sponsorship. But let's pick a worrisome element: under high-tech healthcare, "helping elderly parents stay at home -- so-called aging-in-place -- especially when the caregiver is at a distance." The 'futurist' concept was "equipping a senior's home with sensors that monitor activity, perhaps even with one or two-way video."  This technology isn't the future -- it exists now. So the interviewee whose mother's apartment had $100,000 worth of flood damage -- get a move on, you can find it. And vendors: please get in there and comment on the NY Times article and say it's so!  A million NY Times readers should hear it from you. 

  • Aging in place -- best for Alzheimer's?  Says a nurse interviewed: "Aging in place is the most valuable thing that can happen. Anyone with Alzheimer's is better off in their own environment." Really, from a nurse? Why? So they can drain the life out of their caregivers, breaking their backs and their spirits one day at a time? The gap between those with a purported Alzheimer's diagnosis (more than 5 million age 65+) and the number of long-term care housing slots, including the decline of nursing home beds -- is one of the nightmares of our time, and of the boomers' time. And it is based on press hype, baby boomer guilt, poor marketing of nursing homes, and preying on our worst fears. 
  • Let's start over on this 'aging in place' mania. Aging in place, in our own delightful homes, this is what we want to do -- of course -- unless...  If we acquire a debilitating illness that will consume our family members' lives, if bed transfers are nearly impossible and dangerous, if our minds are so shot that we don't appreciate all of the so-called familiar features of our homes, if we can't feed ourselves, if we have ongoing wound care requirements, if we can no longer see -- maybe that won't be 'aging in place' but rather, deteriorating in place, bringing those close to us down in parallel. If they worked, ALFs and nursing homes could offer safety, services,  high quality care, social connections, mental stimulation that may not be in our fantasy vision of 'aging in place'.
  • Reinvent and remarket the ALF and Nursing Home -- quick.  The collapse of the housing market ground down the senior housing industry -- a real-estate expansion market segment that has nearly stopped expanding, a segment that is either unaffordable for the middle class on the one hand -- or looks like a dimly lit hospital on the other. This industry needs accelerated reinvention of nursing homes. Affordable assisted living (those words tend not to be used together) and the Independent Living and skilled nursing new units that emerge in the future need to be integrated into other parts of communities where young people could be encouraged to visit and volunteer --  versus being isolated onto separate campuses.

Finally, don't forget to read the great trend survey studies, like AARP's Healthy@Home, or Pew Research's Generations Online, that will quantify how baby boomers (and their parents) feel about technology.







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Good post!

I found it strange that they seem not to distinguish between Boomers and the parents of Boomers. At this point, most Boomers are not themselves the elderly; many of them, especially the younger Boomers, are caring for elderly parents.

Boomers are the generation that invented and adopted the PC and the Web. It's not as if they cringe at technology, and they continue to drive trends in technology adoption. Insisting on ease of use is not a sign of dementia; it has been an issue since the PC was invented.

Jim Reynlds
Caring Companion Connections

Elder care, Alzheimers care, Home Companions
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Your comments and links to further analysis on the contradiction between the 'aging in place' goal, and the toll it takes on older people and their families--if any--merits far more honest discussion. Most of us know the personal, emotional costs we pay, wondering when the next crisis will happen and if what you are doing for your parent is best. Can we get beyond this and think up some alternate models to 'facilities' and 'nursing homes'? We need to break the mold on this one.