Today, most of us take our computers for granted—in the workplace, in our homes, at the doctor’s office, and right at our side no matter where we go. But as soon as computers began to appear in the workplaces and homes of Americans, researchers expressed concerns about the “digital divide”—the line between those with computer skills and access, and those without. Florida State University researcher Neil Charness pointed out, “The technology gap is a problem because technology, particularly computer and internet technology, is becoming ubiquitous, and full participation in society becomes more difficult for those without such access.”
The divide today is drawn along economic and educational lines—but also, it seems, along age lines, with seniors slower to adopt digital technology and embrace computer use.
How are we doing today, a quarter century after the first personal computers arrived on the scene? Let’s take a look at the ways computers are revolutionizing the way we age in America, beginning by examining four common myths about senior adults and computers:
Myth #1: Computers are only for younger people
First of all, let’s dispense with the notion that computers are a new invention, developed by young people. The reality is, computer technology has developed over the course of years, and there are plenty of elders who were computer-literate when computers were a lot less “user friendly” than they are now.
On the other hand, if you are old enough to have taken a typing class in high school, you are probably aware that those of us who encountered computers later in life didn’t benefit from early exposure to such skills as software features and keyboarding. So, for many seniors, there is a steeper learning curve.
It is true that at present seniors lag behind other age groups in adoption of computer technology. But seniors are catching up. In 2010, the Pew Foundation reported that only 42% of people 65 and over used the internet; that number grew to 53% in only two years. Computer use is growing fastest in the over-65 population. And as the baby boomers age, the digital divide between younger and older Americans will continue to close. Seniors are using e-mail, going on Facebook, sending out Twitter tweets, playing games and surfing the web in rapidly increasing numbers.
Myth #2: Computers are too complicated for seniors
There is an element of truth to this commonly held belief. Constant upgrades, ever more complex programs and the lighting speed evolution of technology are a challenge for anyone—and when you add some of the physical and cognitive changes of aging, developing computer literacy can seem daunting. Many family caregivers today report that tech support is one of their major eldercare responsibilities!
But, as we saw above, plenty of seniors have eagerly and easily entered the computer age. And new senior-friendly technologies are encouraging the trend. Computer manufacturers, software developers and e-commerce companies realize that with the aging of America, it’s good business practice to offer simpler user interfaces, website features for people with visual and cognitive impairment, and adaptive hardware such as arthritis-compatible mice and keyboards with larger letters. Seniors are adapting to computers…but computers are adapting to seniors, as well.
Myth #3: Computer use doesn’t have much impact on healthy aging
On the contrary! Not only do computers help seniors stay in touch with the world today, but seniors also stand to benefit by the advantages of new technologies. E-commerce, online banking and finding information online are convenient for everyone—and all the more so for people with mobility challenges. The internet can also be a great source of information about “real world” activities and events, providing incentive to remain active in the community. Indeed, surfing the web provides a powerful mood boost: a recent Phoenix Center study demonstrated that internet use by the elderly reduced depression by 20%!
Computer use also promotes brain health, combining reading and interactivity in a powerful way. You have probably heard of “brain exercise” computer programs and games—but did you know that going online also gives our memory a good workout? A 2009 study by UCLA researchers showed that while seniors are performing simple web searches, blood flow is increased to areas of the brain that are vital for cognitive health. Researcher Teena D. Moody explains, “Searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults.”
And what about gaming? A waste of time for couch potatoes? Another recent study shows that seniors who play strategy videogames, such as Rise of Nations or Halo, experienced improved cognitive skills. And active video games, such as the Wii system, have been found to give a good moderate workout.
Myth #4: Online social networking is only for young people
Facebook, Twitter, email, chat rooms, online communities…older adults are going online for socialization in increasing numbers. Social networking is bringing seniors closer to friends and loved ones, and helping them make contact with new friends around the world. Connecting with friends and family in this way helps seniors avoid isolation and loneliness.
Microsoft offers information on computer accessibility for older adults and people with disabilities. See Guide for Individuals with Age-related Impairments to learn more about making your PC easier to see, hear and use.
SOURCE: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge; © IlluminAge 2013