To find the best tech for everyone, look to older adults

Everyone needs to use tech differently.
Everyone needs to use tech differently.
Image: Reuters/Max Rossi
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If you’re worried about your older loved one breaking a hip—a reasonable concern, given that one in four people over 65 do so with a fall—there are various devices that can bring you peace of mind.

They range from black cushiony pads similar to the ones you’d wear on your knees for rollerblading that cost around $40, to actual airbags that circle the waist and buttocks and inflate when they detect a fall for just over $700 (although at the moment, they’re only available in Europe). Presumably, you could buy one of these for your parent or aunt, and be reasonably assured that it may lower their chances< of experiencing a bone-breaking fall.

There’s just one problem: not a lot of seniors actually want to wear them. “Nobody wants to have a big butt,” Elizabeth Zelinski, a gerontologist at the University of Southern California, told the MIT Tech Review.

Bulky hip protectors and shoes that alert caregivers to falls are examples of products geared toward older adults that, while well-intentioned, aren’t always appealing. A lot of the time, they blatantly signal the other-ness of their intended user. Who would want to be reminded that they’re not as sturdy and agile as younger adults, or even their former selves? These products can range from embarrassing to insulting.

Still, older adults can benefit from buying some of these aids, especially those that allow them to age in place instead of forcing them to live with family members or in an assisted living facility. The most useful devices aren’t always gadgets that presume their ability. Instead, it’s often technology that help the elderly easily stay connected with loved ones, remember to-do lists, get around, and grab convenient meals—which is arguably technology that could be used by any demographic.

“We’ve got to stop acting like we have to design for elders,” says Patricia Moore, a gerontologist and designer currently a fellow with the Industrial Designers Society of America.

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It’s true that older adults have different needs or limitations compared to their younger counterparts. Starting around age 30, everyone experiences a gradual cognitive slowdown, which may impair our ability to learn new tasks, names, and faces. Vision also tends to deteriorate with age, as do bone density and joint dexterity.

But aging is a complex process, and not everyone experiences it the same way. Vision loss, for example, can start in a person’s 40s, but it’s common for younger people to wear glasses, too. Plus, other attributes of physical health later in life depend on the issues that someone’s s had leading up to that point. As a result, while some 65-year-olds are less able to take care of chores around the house, others may still be highly physically active. (Eighty-eight runners in the 2018 New York City Marathon were over 75.)

Often, when companies try to cater new technology to older adults, they assume that elders need products specifically designed for them, Moore says. By doing so, those companies bring prejudices about what people at a certain age should or should not be able to do. And scientifically, those data just don’t exist.

What is true, however, is that intuitive technology that makes life easier is popular with older adults. Anne Messina, an 81-year-old living in Long Island, New York, loves her iPhone—particularly the apps Facebook, Mail, and Words with Friends. She likes keeping in touch with her loved ones and beating her friends at the scrabble-like game. “I’m competitive,” she says. “I want to win.”

She likes using Facebook on her iPhone because it’s intuitive; it’s easy for her to share photos, to comment on others’, and to keep in touch with her children, who post updates about their own lives. Although she calls her family regularly, sometimes even using Skype, FaceTime is something she hasn’t tried yet.

Carla Strauss, who is also 81, is less of a fan of the iPhone (she’s wary of too much contact with her kids, who are all working adults in different parts of the country), but she does use it to text her grandchildren, who are all teens. She prefers her Macbook Air and her iPad. From those platforms, she manages four separate email accounts, some of which are purely for email promotions, and one of which is for her work running a local senior group. “I keep them all sorted in groups,” she says. She browses the web for recipes, keeps up-to-date with local news and happenings, and plans social evenings with her friends. Occasionally, she also likes to play Words with Friends with her daughter.

Smartphones and tablets are examples of technology that have been a success globally because people of all ages want  to be on the internet—and keeping in touch with friends and family is pretty universal, says Brian McMahon, the founder of Segment International, a California-based design consulting company. They’re also customizable: No two users are going to have their phones set up exactly the same way. So although Messina may only use her phone for social networking and calling, other users may take advantage of other apps depending on what’s important to them.

One of the key needs older adults face that their younger counterparts don’t are ways to maintain their independence, says Richard Caro, a former Oxford physicist. Fortunately, a lot of the tools that fill this need are geared toward adults looking for convenience.

In 2014, Caro and two friends created public benefit corporation Tech-Enhanced Life. The company runs a website that provides guides and reviews products for older adults and their caregivers. As MIT Tech Review reported in September, the company also supports eight groups of Longevity Explorers, who are between 60 and 90 years old and regularly on the east and west coasts of the US to talk about the technology they like (or dislike) to use and why.

“Ride-sharing apps are a really interesting example,” he says. At first, Caro himself saw them as just another way to get around town. But after listening to discussions among Longevity Explorers, he realized that for older adults, they provided new opportunities. “If you’re 85 and live somewhere in the suburbs and you can’t drive anymore—which tends to happen a lot—then your life becomes very constrained,” he says. Ride sharing like Uber, Lyft, or Via provide a way for people to go anywhere they want on demand, much like they used to be able to do for themselves.

There’s a similar appeal for home food delivery services, like Blue Apron or Fresh Direct, or even PostMates. Caro says that the Explorers haven’t yet come up with a definitive ranking of these services yet, but part of the beauty of them is that there’s so much variety. “Like most segments, [seniors] are not big monolithic homogeneous blob—there’s all different sets of personalities,” he says. Some are going to want to get the raw ingredients for a meal, like Blue Apron provides, while others are going to prefer something that’s already prepared.

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No single app or solution is going to be perfect for everyone, though. Depending on past experiences, some adults may be more or less willing to test out new devices or technologies. Messina, for example, is a former public school librarian. Her work taught her to adopt new technology fairly easily. “Technology was in the DNA, we got new systems all the time.” Most of the explorers at least own a smartphone of some kind.

But recognizing that the tech that benefits seniors often overlaps with what younger adults need is an important step. If a problem can be solved for older adults, who may have more challenges with accessibility, though, it’s also likely something that would benefit adults of all ages.

One problem that Caro hasn’t yet seen tech successfully address is loneliness and social isolation. Seniors have shrinking social networks, he says, in part because they may have a harder time getting out of the house, and in part because their friends die. Although some devices, like new Amazon Echo, have great calling capabilities to help users keep in touch, it still requires significant setup that may prohibit some people from using it.

Loneliness, however, isn’t an age-related problem: Startups like Rent-A-Friend and Bumble BFF that help connect like-minded younger adults show that the problem persists at all ages. What older adults would really benefit from, says Caro, are more affinity groups: real-life meetings where they can meet to talk about shared interests with others. The company MeetUp exists, not all of their events are accessible to seniors, who may have a harder time getting out of the house.

Any kind of tech in this space that is accessible to seniors would likely be useful for all kinds of adults, Caro says. And it could foster inter-generational friendships, too. “If it’s an affinity group, I don’t know that it matters whether the person you’re with is 60 or 20.”

At its core, any technology is a tool that makes the world more accessible for its users. Today, seniors have so many more ways of remaining a vital part of various communities than they did five or 10 years ago, but there’s still a ways to go to keep them fully integrated. Designers have to keep them in mind, not just because they should care about this growing demographic, but because ultimately, tech that benefits seniors benefits everyone.