#COVIDChronicles-194: October 22, 2020-What digital means to older people

I had a column on this topic published in Jamaica Observer’s ‘The Digital Life’, yesterday.

SOMEONE commented on Twitter , recently, that people who take more than 45 seconds at an ATM/ABM should be ‘penalised’. I responded that he had no idea of the issues faced by physically or mentally challenged people, or older people, who cannot do things as fast, because they do not process the information as rapidly. I went to an ABM a few days ago and the lady in front of me was there about five minutes. She was in her 60s/70s. She completed her transactions and took however long it took. The digital age has made many people think in nanoseconds and about speed as if it’s something everyone should crave or be destined for the garbage heap.

I’m a director of the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP) and I hear and see many concerns about technology from older people in Jamaica. Though I’m in my mid-60s, I’ve managed to master much new technology at work and leisure; I’m often the one in my household who understands what needs to be fixed, whether it’s an Internet router or microwave thermostat. I’m not a gadget person but I like things to work for my benefit, not for looks.

CCRP’s feedback supports findings that older people face many problems with the digital world; some physical, some mental (processing what needs to be done); some technical. Many people mastered the mouse, then they needed to master touchscreens and swiping, now they need to master voice-activated or facial-activated. All are simple for many, but pose problems for others. Add to that fears about what technology may be doing behind the scenes. One doesn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist, just maybe someone who has had scamming e-mails or worse been the victim of some kind of cyberfraud. The latest Apple operating system for iPhone alerts you when an application is accessing your device’s camera or microphone.

As Forbes has highlighted, recent reports indicate older people are getting used to new technologies but the issue is whether they are able to master it. One finding is that there is little or no input from older adults on their design.

The irony, Forbes noted, is that “most older adults prefer to age in place, and technologies, including Internet of things (IoT), Ambient/Active Assisted Living (AAL) robots and other artificial intelligence (AI), can support independent living.”

While studies have shown that older adults could use well-designed technologies in their daily lives, few developers have addressed user-related issues in their design processes. Researchers concluded that effective technologies are going to be “those that prioritise the needs and wishes of older adults, general acceptance of potential users, and suitable preconditions for its adoption”. These are all difficult goals to achieve “with a top-down design methodology that fails to engage users in the design process”.

Participants in the study reported a lack of understanding of modern technologies and digital platforms as a barrier that kept them from using new technology and made them dependent on others to operate basic features. They said they had purchased services (for example Netflix) they didn’t use, because they couldn’t understand how to operate them. We often hear the story of family gatherings where the seniors love the youngsters coming so that they can use them as tutors for the technology. There’s a great Ally Bank ad that has the grandkids being handed the laptop as soon as they arrive, and being told, “It’s not working.”

We know seniors can manage to send messages on WhatsApp, but may not know how to add pictures, use voice notes, or forward messages or other features. I once knew a lady who told wonderful stories and when I suggested she start to write them on her computer, she admitted she did not know how to start with any of the word processing software. When I explained she could dictate and have her voice converted to text she looked at me with awe.

In Jamaica, we have low trust in institutions, such as banks, but high trust in people, even strangers. A lady once met me at an ABM and asked if I would help her log in to her account and withdraw money. One of my fellow directors, Ambassador Aloun Assamba, CEO of COK Sodality Co-op Credit Union explained that they now have an online platform which makes it much easier for people, especially seniors, to use their banking facilities. “Initially, many are reluctant to try it so people will walk them through it and usually when that is done they are happy. It is the setting up that is the problem. We have found it takes a little patience to work with the seniors but once it is done they are happy,” she said.

We know that memories can fail rapidly after a certain age. One feature of many technologies is passwords, but keeping them safe and remembered is often a challenge. Many people write them in a book, but can they find the book? An acquaintance related how she could not access her investment account because she’d had no reason to log in because it is not her primary bank account. She was locked out of it, then had to call customer service. But, the line is not toll free; she used a lot of credit waiting an excessive amount of time in the queue. Not a big problem to solve, but things conspired to make it hard to solve, and costly.

Older people often demand little more than consideration. When it comes to technology, they’d like a seat at the development and implementation tables. Is that too much to ask?

Dennis Jones is a director of the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP).

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)