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The Fictions, Facts and Future of Older People and Technology

Author Simon Roberts says, “To put excitement and purpose into our technologies for ageing populations we need to talk differently about ourselves, the ageing and older people. We need to find ways of continuing to include older people in the process of design and delivery. By working with older people and understanding their specific needs we can ensure that end-user needs are the central design point of developing technology. This type of approach encourages us to look at older people as ourselves in a few years time and not as ‘different’ group of people.”

He continues, “Contrary to popular belief there is high willingness amongst older people to adopt and use technology of all varieties. Technology has great potential to connect, engage, educate and entertain us as we age, but there is a wider need to change the approach to older people and technology if we are to truly capitalise on that potential.”

The Think Piece suggests that there is a need for current thinking about technology for older people, and the understanding of older people’s experiences of ageing to catch up with each other. Understanding how older people engage with technology is key to shaping our attitude and approach. However, the report highlights that there is conflicting and mixed evidence about the usage of new technology by older people which leads to confusion:

Figures from the Office of National Statistics[1] shows increased use of the internet by over 65s in the last five years, but a recent Oxford Internet Survey[2] suggests that while use of the internet has continued to grow for those in the 25-54 age range, no such growth is evident in the over 55s.
2009 Ofcom research[3] suggests that only one in ten internet users aged 55 and over have a social networking site profile. Yet other usage figures[4] from a popular social networking site suggests a huge increase in users aged 64 and over. In UK alone, the number of people 64 years or older using this networking site increased by a staggering 390 per cent between November 2008 - October 2009.

Major challenges exist if new consumer and assistive technologies are to meet the needs of an ageing society, this think piece sets out a number of recommendations:

Mind our Language
The way we talk about age impacts how we conceive and design technology for older people. Politicians, policy makers and commentators should avoid using words like ‘old’ or ‘elderly’, which imply that age is a condition or a destination, and instead talk of ‘ageing’ and ‘older’.

Beyond Cohort Thinking
We need to recognise the pitfalls of ‘cohort thinking’ which assumes that older people are one homogenous group. One way to address this issue is to encourage organisations such as Ofcom and the Office of National Statistics to segment the over 55 population more finely, recognising the differences in attitude and outlook that exist in a cohort spanning forty or more years.

Us as we Age
An approach to designing consumer and assistive technologies that is focused on ‘us as we age’, not ‘them that are already old’ would lead to the design and development of technology better suited to a diverse population.

Standards and Guidelines
Cognitive and physical declines make inroads into our abilities to use technologies as we age. Adherence to accessibility standards such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for websites is therefore important but widely disregarded. We should encourage age-friendly accreditation schemes such as Age UK’s new AgeOK kitemark scheme which recognises the excellence in design for all. The UK Design Council should be encouraged to develop initiatives which could help the UK lead the way in the design of technologies for the world’s ageing populations.

Designed and delivered with Soul
We need to strive to make technology that connects people to their own aspirations, their own projects of self development, self esteem, experience and identity, rather than devices that only focus on their ‘inabilities’ and ‘needs’.

References:
1) Office of National Statistics
2) OxIS 2009 Report
3) www.ofcom.org.uk/research/telecoms/reports/bbresearch/bbathome.pdf
4) Facebook advertising figures in Nov 2008 and Oct 2009

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