Older Adults Can Use Tech, But What Happens When the Tech is Ineffective?

  • By digitaldiary
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  • on March 5, 2021

As originally published by David Sable on Linkedin. Subscribe to the newsletter!

The digital divide seems to be getting bigger and bigger. Worse, it has created so many worrying faults that it’s starting to look like one of those disaster movies starring The Rock.

First, we have the digital economic divide. Then there is the digital racial divide. And, finally, The Plague has brought into renewed focus the digital age divide. While I could create a powerful Venn diagram of the three digital divides, as they all intersect on one plane or another, each is problematic on their own as well.

One of the issues in looking at the digital age divide is that for many, 70 is the new 50 and onwards. As the population ages, what constitutes old? Honestly, I used to think that 65 was ancient, and now that I’ve passed that age, I don’t see “elderly” anywhere in sight.

Many older adults (and here I’m talking 80+), have solid digital skills, if for no other reason than that it gives them access to their children and grandchildren. So, while they may not be able to create immersive digital experiences, they are adept at email, messaging, FaceTime and Facebook.

The truth is, of course, that even with non-smartphone capabilities, including basic text messaging, older adults can connect to their loved ones and critical services, and are no worse off than many in the developing world…with one key, and sadly, defining exception.

In the developing world, there is a focus on “work arounds,” or simple hacks that use “dumb” tech to solve problems. All of our admired (but often loathed) so-called Tech Giants (Facebook, Google etc.) have created solutions using SMS and basic phones, even as they continue to experiment with more sophisticated tech, launching balloons, drones and satellites to provide broadband—and to stir up FOMO amongst potential users.

In many developed countries, the age divide is less a symptomatic lack of wide broadband coverage, access to electric power sources or money for hardware, than it is a matter of, “I just don’t have the energy or intuitive knowledge to battle my way through screen after screen of crashing and contradictory user interface.”

The young use tricks of the digital trade, while the old spend hours waiting for spinning circles to still themselves.

While plenty of seniors have access to better tech, they simply don’t have the wherewithal or skillset to use it to its fullest. And by the way, this goes for public messaging and broadcasts as well. So many campaigns aren’t seen by the “old” demographic, as they are not utilizing the channels that purport to reach them.

The digital divide, then, as far as the oldest cohort of our audience is concerned, is more about UI, the simplicity of completion, than it is about lack of access to tech.

Bottom line, the people who need access to certain online platforms the most, say, websites to sign up for the COVID-19 vaccine, have the hardest time finding, navigating and engaging with the pathways that will get them there.

I don’t believe I’m overstating here when I say that it’s an issue that can have tragic consequences. Shame on us.

With all the money we invest in development and “disruption,” with all the time we devote to getting pizza delivered more quickly (my readers know my feelings on this), with all the brainpower we invest in providing yet another way for corporate teams to collaborate online (don’t get me started on this one), how is it that we haven’t provided a simple solution for those who desperately need the vaccine but cannot figure out how to get it?

We have become so jaded by our own tech skills and our ability to make everything more sophisticated (read: complex), that we have lost the drive to make the complex simple. And nothing, going forward, could be more important.

There are many huge systematic faults in the digital divide that will require retooling of much more than tech to fix. But the digital age divide can be bridged by purposeful thinking and empathetic ingenuity. It is not that older people are too senile or deficient to use digital resources and other tech, but rather, we, the younger folks, have failed to create a system that people of all ages can operate and navigate.

Listen to the amazing Frances McDormand:

“I think that ageism is a cultural illness; it’s not a personal illness”

And there you have it. Fix the culture, close the divide.

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