Communication Technology can fix loneliness in older adults and 6 other myths we need to bust.

It is a commonly held belief in the field of ‘human-computer interaction (HCI) and older people, among designers, the general public and even older individuals themselves that there are reasons why older adults do not get on with technology. These myths were explored over 10 years ago in several academic studies, but many updated research studies have continued to show that the myths are unfortunately still alive and well.

The Myths

(1) Just wait and see. Future generations of older people will use computers without problems.

(2) Older people are not interested in using computers. They are unaware of computer capabilities.

(3) Older people consider computers as useless and unnecessary.

(4) Older people lack the physical capabilities to use ICT.

(5) Older people simply cannot understand interactive computing technology.

(6) You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The problem of HCI for older people is that they do not learn to use new technologies and interaction techniques.

(7) Older people cannot use technology to connect with each other and society at large

With myths, the reason they gain common language, is that there is often a grain of truth in them. However, this can also lead to improper overgeneralisation which in turn makes them highly problematic. We can’t help it. As human beings we often look for a shorthand to understanding. But when we don’t check what we believe to be true in the space of human centred design we commit a mortal sin – that of participant paradigm or rather the lack of it.

Designers and engineers can often accept the myths as truths and may in turn neglect older users and/or apply information and communication technologies in an age-discriminating manner. Furthermore, the myths are problematic as they can also be internalised by older adults and lead older people to avoid computer usage (i.e. a self-fulfilling prophecy).

Take Myth One for example. This myth differs from Myths 2-7 in that this could be seen as an overriding myth. In turn it may lead to a (dangerous) conclusion of avoidance and inactivity by integrating myths 2–7. If the other myths are accepted as being true and one assumes that the problems will eventually solve themselves, it might not seem worthwhile to expend any effort on ‘universal design’ for older people’s use of information and communication technology (ICT). However, if we don’t actively and properly counteract these myths, we will perpetuate them and their grave consequences.

Sadly many of these myths are found in mass media and advertisements and then become embodied in devices for older adults and the technology designed for them. We know this can be counteracted by improved user-centred design, training and instruction as well as the continued questioning of our own assumptions about older people and technology.

Over the next 7 weeks I’m going to unpack these damaging myths. Please feel free to join in the conversation.

Myth One - Just Wait and See: Future Generations of Older People Will Use Computers without Problems.

Summary : The problems older people have with computer interactions today are only a temporary phenomenon. The next generation entering the ‘older people’ stage will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to use computers.

It’s important to begin with this myth, because it has a key function. If it were completely true, it could be argued that myths 2-7 can be neglected, since it might not seem worthwhile to expend much effort if the resulting problems will eventually solve themselves. In that sense, it is a ‘meta-myth’, which can potentially lead to a (dangerous) conclusion of communal avoidance and inactivity according to Wandke, H (2014).

One common assumption is that the difficulties older users currently have with computers are merely a temporary problem. Current older adults might not have had a full career of computer interactions. Therefore they have not had to learn how to use them in detail and it seems obvious that problems should arise now when they try to use ICT. In addition, the myth implies that these problems will solve themselves, as the younger generations learn how to use developing computer systems by the time they reach old age.

This myth can be busted when we think that what is contemporary and novel today may be obsolete, replaced and/or forgotten within one or two decades. In particular, the development of devices, smartphones and tablets is fast-paced. Thus, the knowledge necessary to use these technologies will continue to change over time.

The value of experience with formerly current technologies will decrease with age. Individuals must continuously and actively adapt to new technologies and changes in many different ways. Changes are not limited to input techniques, such as the transition from mouse navigation to touch gesture navigation and from a graphical user interface to a natural user interface, but are also occurring in the language used to describe these interactions.

The spoken language is not the only obstacle for communication about and understanding of modern computer technology. The graphic symbols and icons used to describe operating controls and interaction surfaces also present an obstacle. Of course, older people are able to learn how to use new technologies which have yet to be invented. However, current knowledge will not suffice. It takes effort – increasingly with age – to acquire new interaction knowledge. In some older population there may be a decline of perceptive, motor and cognitive skills in old age, which will occur regardless of the technical system in use. This will also influence interaction with computers, regardless of the level of expertise with and the degree of novelty of these systems. Compensating such decline continues to be a challenge for the development of future interaction techniques. It seems that this myth is based on the assumption of a singular cohort effect which will dissolve over time. In fact, this effect is continuously renewed.

The problems faced by older people today regarding the use of computers and related technology products will continue to play a role in the future. The task of getting people to use new technology remains. The specifics may change, but the core of the problem will persist. What that means for on-going generations of older adults is that not only does computer usage need to be refreshed on-going, but the pedagogy or teaching of those skills needs to be addressed. Additionally as society seems to draw effortlessly towards increased human computer interactions it is so vital that cohorts of older adults are not left behind, disenfranchised from the very fabric of a society that needs human computer interactions to take part in basic societal activities like banking, government communications and medical activity such as appointments.

The challenge remains as to how do we utilise technology in a way that remains inclusive.

Why this is important is because the ability to use information and communications technology is now assumed by most commentators to be a prerequisite to living in the “information age.”

From civic involvement to the arts, employment to leisure using information technology is described as “the indispensable grammar of modern life” for all adults. This civic and societal imperative has given rise to political efforts around the world to ensure that every citizen has a basic level of “universal access” to information technologies and that disparities are reduced between those segments of society that are making use of ICT and those segments that are not. In particular, social commentators are beginning to highlight the fact that the information society is also an ageing society and that encouraging older adults' use of ICT is an essential prerequisite to overcoming the “digital divide.” Previous research has identified a host of benefits of ICT for older adults that can be characterised as leading to either social and self-understanding benefits (e.g., increased access to current affairs and health information), interaction benefits (e.g., increased connectivity and social support), or task-orientated goals (e.g., ICT-assisted work, travel, shopping, and financial management). Empirical studies have also found use of the Internet to lead older adults to lower perceived life stress. In essence then, the use of ICTs is seen as a ready means for older adults to “reconnect or improve their connection with the outside world” but NOT necessarily “human” connection.

Yet, the potential of ICT for empowerment of older adults has been tempered by a succession of reports that technology is proving in practice to be an activity that many older adults are excluded from. That using a computer is not only a minority activity amongst older adults but also highly stratified activity by gender, marital status, educational background, and age (i.e., between the “61–70 years” and “71 years and over” age groups). There is therefore growing concern that older adults must engage with new technologies or be further disadvantaged in contemporary society.

Described in research as “to lag in the use of technology is to remain behind a veil of limited knowledge and opportunities. In combination, education and access to information can ameliorate the impact of disadvantage.

I look forward to your comments, thoughts, feedback and examples on how Myth 1 can be busted in such a vital conversation for older adults – that will of course one day be us !

Next week – Myth 2. (2) Older people are not interested in using computers and are unaware of computer capabilities. It is not a problem of design; older people are simply not interested in using computers and completely unaware of computer capabilities. So, why bother?

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