I, Technology: Older generations need innovation, not just internet

Today saw the publication of the Times’ “50 ways to improve old age” – the link is behind a paywall, but in summary, it did indeed contain 50 snappy ideas of how older generations could be treated with more dignity, helped across the road and so on. From the paper version I picked up in a cafe, I drew the conclusion that it was not based on any particularly exhaustive study or experience, and so should not, perhaps, be subjected to too much scrutiny or comment.

However I was, of course, interested to see just how much technology was seen to play a part. Of the 50 ideas, just four were either directly, or indirectly related – in order:

  • 1 – Get the online literacy rate up to 100%
  • 12 – Have an “Ooh, was he in…” app
  • 44 – Embrace robots
  • 49 – Reward inventions and innovations that make life easier for the elderly

My first reaction, that this was a bit of an odd mix, was quickly replaced by an oh-here-we-go feeling about getting older people online. It has to be a good thing, doesn’t it? In all honesty, I’m not so sure – or at least, I don’t believe that it is possible to distil the question down into a simple, binary decision that being online is better than being offline.

Let me be clear. Some sterling efforts are taking place across the UK and beyond, such as the race online – who should be applauded for their efforts. To not be online can very often be seen as a disadvantage for a raft of reasons – access to services and information, communication, interaction – all very good things.

However getting online should not be seen as an end in itself. I’ve been helping a few older residents in my village with their computers, particularly when they have problems with their connectivity, and what’s pretty clear is that the data-pipe on the wall can be the source of as many problems as it solves. Some people I know have refused to have anything to do with it, as they tried and failed to make it work for them; others access the internet only rarely, or when they are prompted.

The fact is that many of the currently available mechanisms for Internet access were designed by geeks, for geeks. Workarounds exist for many problems, and people with experience know how to avoid issues such as picking up computer viruses and spam. Things are changing all the time, and a minority of the population takes pleasure in keeping up, adopting new things and trying them out, coping with accidental data loss and remembering to do backups along the way. A majority don’t, however, and the proportion of people who actually enjoy tweaking, fixing and generally coping, drops with age.

So, while the principle that online access is a good thing is sound, the way that it is currently delivered is not. Even tablets, smartphones and their respective apps – which could be seen to hold some of the answers here – have largely been designed to satisfy the needs of the younger demographic. Ideas here are welcome – though, one would hope, with wider applicability than item 12 on the list, an app to look up old actors and find out what happened to them.

What we have is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge. Genuinely easy to use, low-cost technologies that have been designed from the ground up to deliver on specific needs of older people – which are often much the same as younger people – bus and train timetables, communication with local communities and distant relatives, keeping up to date, simple access to services and understanding of available benefits.

All this without needing to sit for an hour with the help desk of the broadband provider being told to switch the router off and on again, or having to get the daughter-in-law round to find out why the printer has stopped working even though it worked yesterday. If, as the information generation, we owe older people anything it is that all the clever stuff we have come up with really should just work, at least as well as the capabilities it reputedly replaces.

Scraping in at number 49 on the list are, “Inventions and innovations that make life easier for the elderly.” A catch-all category which, in all likelihood, deserves a “50 ways” list of its own. To suggest that the most important thing is getting people online not only misses the point, it fails to face up to the real challenge of making technology simpler to use for all of us.


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