AARP study, White House panel weigh in on how to make tech accessible for seniors

By Jonah Comstock
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President Obama addresses the White House Conference on Aging. President Obama addresses the White House Conference on Aging.

Yesterday, celebrating 50 years of Medicare and 80 years of Social Security, the White House hosted its Conference on Aging. At a panel during the summit, experts discussed how to make technology accessible to seniors. A study on that same topic was released by AARP today.

"We choose to do big things here in America," President Obama said in his opening address to the conference. "Two generations ago we chose to end the era when seniors were left to languish in poverty. Three generations ago, we chose to end an age when Americans in their golden years didn’t have the guarantee of healthcare. This generation we chose to go even further. Now healthcare is more affordable and available than ever before. This anniversary of those incredible achievements, we need to recommit ourselves to finishing the work earlier generations began. To make sure this country remains one where no matter who you are or where you started off, you're treated with dignity, your hard work is rewarded, and you have a shot to achieve your dreams, whatever your age."

At a panel on technology and aging, panelists addressed challenges involved in driving tech adoption for seniors. Susannah Fox, who recently became Chief Technology Officer at HHS, pointed out that seniors are very capable of being tech savvy. The key, she says is to design technology that's so invisible and effortless anyone can use it.

"In terms of the future of technology I see two possibilities," she said. "One is that it becomes like electricity, that it disappears. All the gadgets we carry around get sewn into our clothes and the interfaces get back to what technology really should be, to assist us and not to resist us, to connect us and not to divide us. The other possibility is that the smartphones get smaller and harder to use if you have low dexterity or low vision. I’m hoping we choose the road where technology disappears."

On the other hand, invisible technology can present its own problems for senior according to Chuck Wallace, a professor at Michigan Tech whose team works with the elderly to teach them to use technology.

"One thing that we’ve found from our help sessions with older users is that the more invisible things get, the harder it is for them to get their heads around it," he said. "We spend a great deal of time explaining the cloud to people at our help sessions."

The panel also featured speakers from sharing economy companies like Care.com, Uber, and Peapod, who all spoke about how a significant number of their users are older Americans. Uber announced pilot programs in Florida, Texas, Ohio, Arizona and California that will partner with senior community centers to provide free technology tutorials and free or discounted rides to older Americans.

A relevant and recent study from Project Catalyst at AARP looked specifically at how easy older people found it to use consumer activity trackers. The study of 92 adults 50 and older showed that after six weeks of using an activity and sleep tracker, 71 percent of participants reported increased awareness of activity, sleep or eating habits, 45 percent reported increased motivation, 46 percent said they changed their behavior; and 67 percent of participants reported the activity and sleep tracker to be beneficial or of value.

“Despite what some people may think, the study showed that consumers in the 50-plus age group enjoy interacting with technology when it provides them with constructive and usable feedback on their goals,” Dr. Brad Fain, a director of Georgia Tech’s HomeLab and principal research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, said in a statement. “They are motivated to use new products that help them achieve good health and avoid illness – important findings as we seek to improve technology and make life easier for this underserved population.”

Participants in the study were also asked how they would recommend improving the technology. This was also a theme of the conference: the importance of including seniors in the design process of new technology.

“The recommendations that came out of the study are to make trackers better able to share information on health goals important to 50-plus consumers, simplify set up, make them unobtrusive to wear and easier to maintain, and provide more features like timely alerts and instantaneous access to information,” Jody Holtzman, AARP Senior Vice President of Thought Leadership, said in a statement. “If these qualities are prioritized, the potential in the 50-plus market for activity and sleep trackers is likely to grow.”

Other tech-related news from the conference included:

-- Honor, a Silicon Valley startup focused on digitally connecting seniors with paid care givers, announced it would provide $1 million in free care in 10 cities. The startup raised $20 million in April from Andreessen Horowitz and others.

-- The University of Washington’s School of Nursing and the HEALTH-E (Home-based Environmental Assisted Living Technologies for Healthy Elders) initiative announced the creation of an Aging and Technology Laboratory, which will be designed to allow older Americans to participate in the design and development of technology built to help them.

-- Philips, the MIT AgeLab and Georgetown University’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative, will team up to create the AgingWell Hub – an incubator for open innovation to explore new technologies, products, services related to aging and bring together stakeholders from academia, healthcare systems, caregivers, payers, entrepreneurs and older adults.

-- The Obama Administration launched a new online hub for seniors, Aging.gov. Per the press release, "the website links to a broad spectrum of Federal information, including how to find local services and resources in your community for everything from healthy aging to elder justice to long-term care, as well as how to find key information on vital programs such as Social Security and Medicare."