It’s a variation on the old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Or in this case, “Senior citizens can’t adapt to the new technology.” The stories are rampant:
- Grandpa doesn’t know how to use the TV remote
- My 70-year-old mom still has a 1990s flip phone
- I tried to get my dad on Facebook but he refuses
Such revelations are usually accompanied with something akin to “they just don’t seem to get it.”
But research has shown that seniors, by and large, do ‘get it.’ According to the Pew Research Center1, in 2021, 75 percent of people over 65 in the U.S. used the internet, up from 14 percent in 2000. Rather than ‘not getting it,’ research has shown that older adults adopt tech they find useful and resist tech they don’t. One 86-year-old man was quoted as saying, “I honestly don’t need or want them,” in relation to smartphones and social media. He is perfectly content with his flip phone and no email or social media presence.
The Pew Study found that the older the person, the less likely s/he is to embrace smartphones, social media, or the internet in general. But the study also found that those who decide to adopt technologies are prolific users and make the effort to learn the new skills needed. Seniors are the fastest growing online demographic. So the real barrier isn’t technological illiteracy, but rather a personal choice.
A 2014 study by researchers from the University of New Hampshire and Wayne State University2 found that seniors can master new tech skills as readily as younger people – when that tech has value to them. One subject stated that he was confident he could master Facebook or a smartphone if he wanted to. “Anyone can figure it out,” he said, “but I don’t want to spend the time to do that.”
As I discussed in a previous article on the impacts of social media, it’s not difficult to find people in a restaurant sitting at the same table but ignoring each other while they stare at their phone screens. This aspect particularly turns off older people, who were raised with the concept of conversation as a social bonding experience.
However, it is interesting to note that older adults who have adopted technology often engage in this same behavior. One older man, a former restaurant owner, stated, “The saddest part about the restaurant business was watching people come in to celebrate events, and as soon as they sat down, their phones came out. I saw as many older adults as younger ones glued to their phones, and I don’t want to be one of them.”
Researchers Bran Knowles and Vicki Hanson also found that the perception of the unwillingness of seniors to adapt to technology leads manufacturers to disregard older people as valid stakeholders. Since tech designers are usually younger people, “The people who drive tech development can’t imagine what it’s like to be 80,” said Knowles. “Misconceptions get baked into the design, build, and marketing of devices supposedly made for seniors. When older adults don’t adopt them, it’s easy to write them off as categorically resistant to technology3.”
They cite the development of the Jitterbug, a phone with extra-big buttons intended for older users. However, button size doesn’t dictate seniors’ decisions about tech use, and “such presumptions highlight Silicon Valley’s bias toward youth.”
The Risk of Technology Avoidance
Five or six years ago, there was an assumption that as people accustomed to using technology in their working lives aged, there would be a marked increase in technology use by seniors. That has not been the case. The overwhelming perception remains of seniors being incapable of or otherwise resistant to using technology. When they do employ technology, seniors tend to focus on family or other social communication.
But lack of interest in using technology beyond family/friend interaction is increasingly more disabling as American society pushes toward a more digitally connected society. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 exacerbated this concern. Digital technologies related to such basic needs as food shopping and access to medical treatment are becoming increasingly essential to daily life. Thus, it is reasonable to question whether older adults’ inability or disinterest in accessing online-only services may be putting them at increased risk.
It is well established that those in lower socio-economic circumstances are more vulnerable to disease, often due to lack of nutrition and access to health care. This becomes even more of an issue for seniors in a digitally connected society. Research has shown that in addition to age, education, attitudes towards technology and socio-personal characteristics are factors in technology use. Indeed, adults over 65 were more likely to use technology if they were more highly educated and/or living with a spouse4.
But even more educated and economically-stable older adults may draw a line at technology interfaces for such needs as addressing disabilities. To some degree, this may trace to a distrust of technology to replace traditional consultation with a ‘professional.’ This is understandable. Even younger people often have a level of skepticism about online health information. But it is a fact of modern life that ‘professionals’ are pushing a requirement that initial interaction be through technology.
For the past few years, my own doctor’s practice has pushed patients to seek advice first through their web portal. Additionally, while it is possible to make an appointment with the doctor via telephone, the practice pushes patients to seek appointments via the web to actually see a doctor.
And the doctor’s office no longer calls with test results or diagnoses. An email notifies the patient to review results on the portal. This may lead some seniors who may be technology-averse to eschew needed medical evaluation, at least in early stages of a problem.
In their interviews with older adults, Knowles and Hanson found that, “… they are often unwilling to acknowledge that their lives would be enriched through digital technologies, whether or not they were made accessible5.”
The Impact of COVID-19
The physical disconnect caused by the COVID-19 pandemic further divided seniors. While some have adapted, grudgingly or otherwise, since March 2020, there are those who remain at odds with technology. This can perpetuate the misconception that seniors who resist technology can’t or don’t want to be reached. As The Atlantic reported, “The disregard for the elderly that’s woven into American culture is hurting everyone6.”
This misconception can further the deadly consequences of ageism by discouraging the investment in development of new or different approaches to technological adaptation. Knowles sees the heartlessness around the lack of support for seniors and the explicit suggestion that they’re expendable as “partly a function of having digitized the world without designing it in a way that invites older adults to join.”
If someone resists filling out an online form to get government assistance in a financial crisis or can’t figure out how to get Zoom to work for a medical appointment, Knowles fears this response: “Well, you should have learned how to use the internet. It’s not our problem7.”
Navigating a New World
For most of our lives, seniors have navigated the world free from a need for digital technology that younger generations take for granted. We have experienced first hand the changes brought by the adoption of technology. And we have also experienced first hand some of the reasons for concern about the invasive nature of the technological experience.
Even with improvements in digital security, seniors remain a target-rich population for exploitation. As technologies such as online banking become so essential to daily life as to be universally required, concerns born of a lifetime of experience will continue.
Doubtlessly, advances in data protection will reduce the risk for future generations. But the challenge remains to mitigate seniors’ concerns and encourage the perception of personal benefit of adopting technology.
“It’s not about how to get older people to use the tech we have,” Knowles said. The real question is, “How do we make tech seniors actually want?”
- “Internet Use by Age.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 9 Sep. 2022, www.pewresearch.org/internet/chart/internet-use-by-age/
- Vroman, Kerryellen G., et al. “‘Who over 65 Is Online?” Older Adults’ Dispositions toward Information Communication Technology.” Computers in Human Behavior, Pergamon, 20 Nov. 2014, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S074756321400541X
- Knowles, Bran, and Vicki L. Hanson. “The Wisdom of Older Technology (Non)Users.” ACM, 1 Mar. 2018, cacm.acm.org/magazines/2018/3/225474-the-wisdom-of-older-technology-nonusers
- Vorman, et.al. Ibid.
- Knowles, ibid.
- Aronson, Louise. “Ageism Is Making the Pandemic Worse.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 22 Apr. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/03/americas-ageism-crisis-is-helping-the-coronavirus/608905/
- Knowles, ibid.