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Technology Fear Stops Older Adults From Logging On

But scientists are breaking the computer block

Thinking forward

Designers are awakening to the challenge, taking a host of approaches to making computers more accessible.

  • In Europe, volunteer programmers have created a free Linux-based desktop interface called Eldy, which uses desktop icons to simplify emailing and other tasks. A U.S. version is currently in development.

Meanwhile, for-profit software packages like PointerWare ("Computers Made Simple") and BigScreenLive take over a PC user's desktop and present simple, colorful on-screen buttons for email, photos, Web surfing and other functions.

"Once BigScreenLive is running you are immersed in a world where you can't make mistakes," the company's website proclaims. "The only places you can click are within our software, and we make everything easy-to-use and safe."

  • A Bay-area company called Presto takes a different approach. Dispensing with a computer screen, keyboard and mouse, the Presto Printing Mailbox consists of a modem-equipped HP printer attached to a phone line. It allows friends, relatives and caregivers to send emails and cards that print out automatically.

The product is rarely bought by the older person, says Jennifer Sherwood, the company's sales and marketing manager. "Ninety-five percent of the time it's a gift."

The $150 yearly basic service charge includes a spam-proof email account and a "nudge" prompt that reminds slacker siblings to send Mom a note.

While many older people get addicted to receiving notes and photos via Presto — particularly from their grandchildren — Sherwood says adult children and caregivers use the service to send reminders and medication information.

The fact that the recipient can't reply to an email doesn't seem to be a problem, the company has found. "Grandma doesn't want to respond to you electronically," Sherwood says. "She just wants to be kept in the loop."

In addition to their obvious benefit in connecting seniors to their friends and family, computers may play an increasing role in helping people retain their cognitive abilities as they age.

UCLA neuroscientists reported in 2009 that after spending just a week performing Internet searches, older first-time computer users saw changed brain activity and improved neural functioning. Web surfing basically served as a form of brain exercise, the scientists said.

CREATE researcher Walter Boot has older people in his lab play video games to see whether it will help improve their visual acuity, memory and reasoning ability. Some games aimed at seniors are already on the market, Boot says, but there is mixed evidence that brain-fitness games improve cognition, and marketing seems to be based more on the "fear of losing cognitive ability."

Neil Charness meanwhile predicts that doctors soon will use computers to remotely monitor people with chronic health problems, like diabetes, reducing the need for expensive institutional care. "This is really where technology and aging are going to intersect in a very big way," he says.

Michael Haederle is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in People, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

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