There is an assumption amongst younger generations that the senior members of our society have no interest in technology. Labelled rather patronizingly as a generation of 'digital dinosaurs', there are often exaggerated claims of an ever-increasing 'digital divide' between the old and young.
A closer look at age-related technology use exposes this assumption as misleading. Whilst it is well-known that millennials are the most prolific users of technology, their senior counterparts are beginning to embrace the digital movement at a faster pace than ever before. Research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that almost 75% of adults aged 65+ use the internet, with women aged 75+ showing the greatest increase in use of any demographic group.
Why is this? Technology can significantly improve the quality of later life, and seniors are finally beginning to wake up to how it is changing the face of aging. From social networking sites to fitness monitors, here we explore how modern technology is empowering the older generation to live more autonomously than ever before.
A recent study by Age UK revealed that as many as 1.2 million elderly people in England experience chronic loneliness. Further research has shown that the use of social networks such as Facebook and Skype can be hugely helpful in reducing feelings of isolation and the onset of depression in older people.
At the click of a button, social networking sites can offer instant interaction with loved ones and friends, improving communication and facilitating greater personal connectivity in a way that hasn't been possible before - Skype can virtually bring relatives right into the sitting room. ONS statistics show that almost 25% of adults aged 65+ now use social networking sites, but with a third of this age group living on their own, these sites are becoming increasingly critical for the housebound elderly looking for ways to stay connected to society.
Having the ability to look after yourself brings with it dignity, self-confidence and satisfaction. When independence is taken away, it can be humiliating and lead to feelings of worthlessness. Not having to rely on someone else to function is crucial to both mental and physical wellbeing, but this can often become more difficult in old age. Luckily today, there is a variety of technology available that encourages independence in all aspects of later life. A great example of this is the Amazon Echo.
The artificial intelligence assistant can enable the elderly to carry out numerous tasks through voice control, from checking the weather to locking the house. Most importantly, the Echo helps to overcome problems with memory, one of the leading causes of independence loss in old age, by enabling users to set reminders. For example, dementia patient Rick Phelps, has found the Echo extremely helpful in prompting him to take his medication at specific times in the day.
Improving Health and the Healthcare System
The aging population is the fastest growing in the UK and it's estimated that by 2040, almost one in four people will be aged 65+. One of the biggest burdens facing this growing demographic is ill health, with almost 60% of the elderly suffering from a long-term condition. The rapid growth of this age group is forecast to put increasing pressure upon an already under-funded and under-resourced NHS.
Whilst illness is almost inevitable in old age, discovering ways to remain in good health for as long as possible is of high priority and technology has the capacity to do just this.
Many digital devices can help to prevent the development of disease in the elderly; research has shown that hearing aids, while used to treat hearing loss, can also help to stop the onset of dementia, and with so much variety in the hearing aid market, older individuals can find the best fit for them. Other digital devices such as fitness monitors can encourage older individuals to adopt healthier lifestyles, inhibiting behaviour-related illness such as hypertension. Technology has now advanced to such a degree that the elderly can even monitor their own health using apps to identify early warning signs of illness.
The positive impact that technology can have on the health of the older generation will undoubtedly go some way towards diverting scarce medical resources towards other priority areas in the healthcare system.
Confidence and Cost are Concerns
One of the biggest barriers to technology adoption amongst the aging population is a lack of confidence. Older individuals regularly struggle to understand how to use technology, and frequently require guidance about "what to press and when". Just recently I had to provide my Grandmother with step-by-step instructions about how to simply access the contact list on her mobile and make a call.
Another issue that the elderly have with technology is its cost. Getting by on a fixed income such as a pension can be hard enough, so purchasing something like a computer is simply too big of an investment for many, despite prices having already fallen.
This consequently poses a dilemma: a cohort of society that can prosper from technology is struggling to access it. Whilst this issue is being addressed by some charities such as Age UK, who run computer training courses to help get older adults online, these barriers to adoption are still a major problem. Tackling digital exclusion is crucial if we are to build a fairer society where the elderly can realise the benefits of technology and have equal access to it. When this is achieved we will be able to truly appreciate the advantages that technology provides for all generations, and how our mutual interests will continue to be served by the advances of the digital age.