Pandemic lockdowns drove large numbers of older adults to use digital technologies. For some, however, devices like computers and smartphones can present challenges.
“A lot of these systems are designed without consideration of older user groups,” says Sara Czaja, the founder and director of Weill Cornell Medicine’s Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement. “It sometimes causes people to abandon technology.”
Complex software, operating instructions rife with technical jargon, device makers’ lack of understanding of older adults’ needs and other factors can all contribute to the problem. Those who can’t make efficient use of computers, smartphones and other tech devices are cut off from online sources of information, entertainment and social interactions, and are less able to electronically access health care. Researchers are seeking ways to help older adults deal with such problems, and more easily use their digital devices.
“We have seen a tremendous increase in utilization since the early part of the pandemic,” says Thomas Caprio M.D., professor of medicine and geriatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “People were really trying to connect with things like FaceTime, doing emails and those kinds of things.”
Older adults account for a growing share of the area population. In Monroe County, nearly 129,000 residents—or 17.3 percent—are 65 or older, 2020 American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau show. That’s up from 13.6 percent a decade earlier.
A surge in interest
According to a 2021 AARP report, less than half of adult Americans age 50 or older communicated with others via video chats in 2019. By 2020, 70 percent of those surveyed were using that means of communication, one-third of them weekly. Altogether, four out of five indicated that they relied on cellphones, computers and other digital devices to stay connected with family and friends.
Older adults also increasingly turned to digital devices to help manage their health care during the pandemic. Of those surveyed by the AARP for the 2021 report, 40 percent used smartphones to make telehealth visits to medical professionals, obtain medical advice, schedule office appointments or order prescriptions in 2020, a 12 percent increase over 2019.
That desire to make human connections or engage in other activities online during the pandemic helped drive up older adults’ purchases of computers and other electronic devices.
A 2022 AARP survey of Americans 50 years or older found that 35 percent bought smartphones, 19 percent purchased laptop computers or netbooks, and 8 percent acquired desktop computers in 2020. Those figures reflected respective increases of 12, 10 and 3 percent over 2019. The survey respondents spent an average of $821 on digital devices in 2022, a 130 percent increase over 2019.
Having a desktop, laptop or smartphone is one thing. Being able to use it is another. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that only 26 percent of those 65 or older felt very confident about using computers, smartphones or other electronic devices to perform tasks online. Another 11 percent said they were “not at all” confident of being able to do so.
The difficulties that some older adults encounter when trying to use tech devices might arise in part from the generational divide between the designers and programmers of those machines and those who use them. Approximately 54 percent of employed U.S. software engineers are 40 or younger, and have spent all of their lives in a world where such devices are common.
“These folks don’t know what it’s like to not have technology at hand,” says Kristen Shinohara, an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences. “They speak a digital native language, having grown up in this ecosystem of technology, and they’re creating the next-generation technologies.”
Digital natives grew knowledgeable of computers and other digital technologies at an early age, are comfortable with them, and consider them to be integral and necessary to their lives. Those who share that background might have difficulty designing and programming devices that meet the needs of older adults.
AARP’s 2022 survey found that 68 percent of respondents did not believe digital devices were designed with their ages in mind.
That lack of consideration can make itself known the moment a device comes out of its box.
“There’s usually not (operating) instruction manuals anymore,” Caprio says. “You have to access it on the device. That becomes a real stress point for a lot of people.”
Even when a device’s operating instructions are readily available, they might be written in technical terms that are not native to users.
“It’s because the person who probably wrote it has a mindset that ‘the people who use it will share my vocabulary,’” Shinohara says. “That’s not always the case, and so then you have (this) communication breakdown.”
Daniel Jones, the founder of the firm Daniel Teaches, instructs older adults in the computer, internet and social networking skills they desire or need. Some of his students are unable to understand the instructions that come with their printers.
“In many cases, the instructions are so poorly written that they (the owners) have to get online or they have to download an app to install the printer,” Jones says.
That can also make older adults unable to get the help they need with their digital devices.
“They can only articulate the symptom,” says Helen Newman, coordinator of the Tech Age for Adults program at the Louis S. Wolk JCC of Greater Rochester. “They can’t tell you what their problem is because they don’t know enough about their devices.”
The frequency at which software developers update their operating systems and programs can compound the problem. Microsoft, for example, has released 16 versions of its Windows operating system since 2015 and updates the portions of the program that deal with security monthly.
“When you get a new version … things change,” Czaja says. “You have to constantly engage in new learning in order to keep abreast of these changes.”
Improving digital training
Seeking ways to improve digital training for older adults, URMC’s Finger Lakes Geriatric Education Center has partnered with the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute on the Connecting Older Adults to Technology program.
“Education is the primary focus, especially around health literacy and tech literacy,” says Caprio, FLGEC’s director.
Health literacy is defined the ability to process and understand information to make informed health-related decisions. In the age of the internet, that ability depends heavily upon the possession of digital literacy, or the skills needed to use modern communication technologies to obtain, evaluate and communicate information. Without those skills, even scheduling an appointment with a doctor can be more difficult.
“If people’s information is only accessible through a patient portal, but you don’t either have the device to access to it or you don’t have the basic skill set, you can be at a disadvantage,” says Karen Brown, FLGEC’s program manager. “That can result in lower health outcomes.”
COAT seeks to determine whether a new instructional curriculum can be used to help older adults learn the computer and internet skills they need to acquire digital and health literacy. The curriculum was developed by the Community Tech Network, a California nonprofit that seeks to help all people gain access to vital digital infrastructures.
“The program covers email, using the (device’s) camera, video conferencing, online safety, downloading apps, connecting with family and friends, finding accurate and reliable health information, online resources for older adults for classes (and) more,” Brown says.
COAT has put the new curriculum to use in two pilot studies, both of which targeted subjects who were at least 60 years old and wanted to improve their digital literacy.
In the first, which took place in last year, nine older adults were given Lenovo smart tablets. Then, they met with Ithaca College students who’d been trained as digital coaches for five sessions of one-on-one instruction in the operation of the tablets and their use for internet access.
“We opted (for one-on-one) instruction over a class setting, since we know that learners entering the program will have different ranges of knowledge, skills and comfort level related to technology,” Brown says.
The setup allowed the coaches to tailor their instruction to their students’ needs and desires. Because the study took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the 60- to 90-minute lessons were given online. Those who completed the program were able to keep the tablets.
All the students involved in the study filled out pre- and post-instruction surveys to determine how much they had benefited from the training program.
COAT began a more extensive test of its instructional program in early May, when two groups of 10 students—one in Lewis County and the other in Cortland County—were given more advanced Lenovo tablets. The students then began the first of six one-on-one, face-to-face instructional sessions with their digital coaches, many of whom are retired teachers.
The Lewis County group began taking their lessons on May 9, and the other group started instruction on May 11. Brown says both should be completed by the end of June.
Brown says COAT is in the process of assessing the data from surveys completed by the 2022 study participants, but the results appear to be positive.
“The regular contact was very useful,” she says.
Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]