Old dogs and new tricks
That stance makes sense, says Laura Carstensen, a Stanford University psychologist who uses a framework she calls "socio-emotional selectivity theory" to study how people's goals change over the course of a lifetime.
Young people seek new skills "because they might become relevant later," Carstensen says, "Whereas when people age and time horizons shrink, they are more interested in what seems to matter now. So they focus more on emotional goals and being with the people that matter most in life."
She disputes whether older people are inherently less able to learn new technology, pointing out that today's elderly have accommodated to more technological change in their lifetimes than any previous generation in history.
While many older people may not see the point of using computers for social networking, Carstensen thinks more of them would adopt the technology if they were provided with the right incentive.
"My hypothesis would be if you develop new technologies that are going to give older adults an opportunity to experience meaningful rewards, they would be all over it and learn it very well," she says.
At the University of Miami, CREATE director Sara J. Czaja wants to see whether access to a simple, senior-friendly computer system will provide those rewards and maybe even enrich users' lives.
Czaja is conducting a yearlong study with 300 people over the age of 65 who live by themselves. Half the participants have been provided with a customized computer system using a modified version of BigScreenLive, a computer software program targeted at older people. The modified program, called PRISM for personal reminder information social management, has additional functions and different interface features.
"We're interested in understanding what this means in terms of improving quality of life, as well as improving social isolation and social interaction patterns," Czaja says. "In another year or so we'll have some good empirical data."
Her CREATE colleague Charness, who has discussed ways to make the technology easier to use with usability experts in U.S. technology companies, says that some manufacturers used to assume the senior market was too small to bother with.
"But as we're well aware, we have an aging population," Charness says, "and that market is growing by leaps and bounds."