Jerry Dyer's technophobic in-laws tend to get visibly uncomfortable around computers.
"They think it's some kind of disease," the 80-year-old Grand Junction, Colo., resident says. "You'll want to show them something on the computer, and they look at it for a few minutes and walk out of the room. I might have been guilty of the same thing before we got one."
See also: Does the iPad have senior appeal?
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Ever since Dyer and his wife, Gay, 80, bought a Hewlett-Packard desktop computer several years ago, he has grown accustomed to emailing with his old Army buddies and even doing some Internet shopping (although he draws the line at online banking).
The Dyers are among a distinct minority of people in their age group who have gotten online. While younger folks are busy using email, Facebook and Twitter, it turns out that about 62 percent of people 75 and older still don't own a computer, according to recent surveys.
Why more older adults don't adapt to new computer technology, and what to do about it, are vexing questions, says Florida State University's Neil Charness, a researcher at the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE), which is affiliated with Florida State, the University of Miami and Georgia Institute of Technology.
It seems a big reason is that not all computer users are created equal, a fact that computer designers and software engineers have not always seemed to recognize. As we age, changes in perception and motor control may make it harder to see a computer screen, type on a keyboard or use a mouse, Charness says. And then there's the added time it takes to learn a complicated new routine — spreadsheet software, for example.
"Learning new things definitely takes more time as you get older," Charness says. "The brain shows moderately steady decline from your late teens onwards, in terms of the flexibility to form new circuitry."
Psychology and motivation are often overlooked factors, adds Charness, who suggests that older people weigh benefits heavily when deciding whether to adopt new technology.
"If it takes you twice as long to learn something, why would you invest that time when you could be drawing on your crystallized intelligence — your already acquired knowledge — and doing things you enjoy doing?" Charness asks.
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."
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.