In a technology age, are older adults at a disadvantage?

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For young and old, increasingly it's like living in 2 different worlds

If you need to interact with companies, organizations and even government, increasingly you are encouraged – and in some cases required – to do it online.

For the last two decades the efficiency of the Internet has streamlined bureaucracies and increased productivity while reducing costs. The assumption now is that everyone should do everything online.

Phone books and catalogs have been replaced with online directories. Signing up for coverage in the Healthcare Marketplace requires going to a website.

Who needs a computer?

It's more convenient for most people but completely baffling for others – primarily older adults. In 2011 AARPreported 62% of people age 75 and older didn't even own a computer.

AARP chalks that up to changes in perception and motor control as people age, making it hard to see the screen or manipulate a mouse. Perhaps that's part of it, but researchers at Ohio's Bowling Green State University believe there could be something more.

Nearly 900 test subjects enrolled in their study, ranging in age from 19 to 99. The researchers wanted to get a handle on how well the subjects used technology – in particular, a tablet.

As you might expect, the results were wide-ranging.

“In addition to the traditional technologically savvy millennial who is constantly connected to his or her device, we also had the lower range of technology interaction, with almost 6% of the sample reporting that they do not understand what a tablet is, even after three-quarters page long description with photos,” the authors wrote.


There is a Catch-22 here. As people age they may need the extra assistance that technology could provide. But the authors found the relationship between age and attitudes towards technology is predominantly negative, and that as the age of individuals’ increases, their negative attitudes towards technology increase.

Does it have to be this way? The researchers don't think so. They think ageism might play a role here, with the stereotype of older people unable to grasp technology becoming a self-fulfilling reality.

Technology engineers, they say, might also design devices with more senior-friendly features.

“Even though technologies related to tablet use have evolved, the resources that would help individuals who are less technologically literate to use tablets (or any new technology) are greatly lacking,” they write.


Training might also make a difference, if done the right way. Then, the authors conclude, the older population might begin using more of the resources that could benefit them, whether it's booking a hotel reservation or ordering a birthday gift for a grandchild.

But aging expert Neil Charness of Florida State University says that might be a hard sell for some technology-averse seniors.

"If it takes you twice as long to learn something, why would you invest that time when you could be drawing on your crystallized intelligence — your already acquired knowledge — and doing things you enjoy doing?" he told AARP.

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