It’s time to start thinking harder about inclusive technologies

Caroline Holland, Open University

It’s time to start thinking harder about inclusive technologies if more older people are going to get the benefits.

What is the issue?

We have been living through an extended period of change in social and working life and in the technologies that we commonly use. ‘Technology’ in the very broadest sense simply means using knowledge to create tools, techniques or systems to solve problems or make things easier to do. People who are now ‘older’ have seen many specific technologies come, change, and often go. (When did you last see a postal order, or a mangle?) Older people have learned many new technologies and adapted to change all their lives. Yet older people are often seen as incompetent in the use of modern technologies, particularly ICTs, and many may say themselves that this is so. The issue is to find ways to make useful ICTs more available to everyone who could benefit from them: and an important part of that is overcoming prejudice.

What is known about technologies for older people already?

We know some of the reasons why older people are one of the biggest groups in the population to find problems with ICTs. One is that if you passed right through school, college etc. without computers, and you didn’t use ICTs much or at all for most of your working life, then you are already at a disadvantage. Second, with ageing there is the tendency for physical changes such as in vision, hearing, or mobility that many modern gadgets and devices don’t take into account. Also, the pace of change in recent years has seen a constant stream of new devices becoming available: some take off (like smart phones) and some don’t (like mini-disc players). If I’m on a limited income, as many older people are, how do I know what to invest in, and when? Who is going to help me with IT support, upgrading software, etc.? Where do I get reliable information about what might be really useful to me, to solve problems, to make life a bit easier or more interesting?

Why now?

On the whole people are tending to live longer, but often with health conditions that mean they need some support, and that isn’t always available as and when they need or want it. Technologies are seen as having a role – ideally not to replace people, but to work alongside them to give people the support they need to remain as independent as possible. A whole range of assistive technologies have been developed specifically to deal with physical and cognitive problems –  for example fall alarms and motion sensors. Other devices designed for general use have been co-opted as assistive technologies. GPS (global positioning system) is a good example of this, where a general location system can support people living with dementia to get around safely for longer.

Why is this particularly important now? Looking back, it is clear that some technologies originally generally regarded as marginal or even ridiculous have become mainstream. The best example of this is the mobile phone, emerging from a status symbol in the 1980s (yet often a ridiculed one) to the dominant form of telephone connection by the early 21st century. With the emergence of each new way of doing things, there are always early, midstream, and late adopters – and people who never engage. But as technologies become mainstream, people who are excluded from them for whatever reason can be at a real disadvantage, as are adults who can’t read in a society where almost everyone else does.

The emerging world of technologies includes social media that inform and connect people; wearable technologies, such as those for monitoring health and fitness; and robotic assistants for activities of daily living, help around the house, as shopping companions, and lots of other uses. If these are going to work with older people and in their best interests, older people need to be involved in the conversations about developing them.

What is needed?

Older people (and people who support them) need information – accessible, clear and up to date information about technologies that might help to improve their quality of life. Peer and intergenerational support has been shown to be key to the successful adoption of technologies, and to help people to overcome problems at home: for example resolving issues about using different computers, operating system, and applications. Increasingly, older people are being involved in research as users of technology and their involvement is essential to make them work for everybody.

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