Modern Life

Aging in the digital age: How technology is changing the way we grow old

Everyday and emerging tech can help older adults stay independent, safe, and engaged.

By Stacy Rapacon — October 31, 2019

At the respective ages of 96 and 94, Mark and Gloria Charness are still able to live independently in their Toronto home, thanks in part to their tech savvy. Mark manages their finances and watches the stock market online. And Gloria keeps up with family via Skype and email — both of which help their son, Neil Charness, check in on them from his own home in Florida. Charness, who is also the director of the Institute for Successful Longevity, says that even when severe hip pain recently left his mother essentially bedridden, he was confident his parents would be able to remain independent because of their technological capabilities. 

Today’s seniors have adapted to massive technological changes in their lifetimes, from ATMs to PCs to smartphones. By 2029, the youngest baby boomers (defined as US adults born between 1946 and 1964) will turn 65, making an entire generation senior citizens who will make up more than 20% of the U.S. population. But far from being a stereotype of older people resistant to adopting technology, according to a survey from AARP, 91% of people age 50 and up own a computer and 75% own a smartphone. Half of respondents also say they’re interested in new tech, such as smart TVs, home assistants, and virtual reality. “For the most part, older adults are not as tech phobic as they’re made out to be,” Neil Charness says.

And technology is fundamentally changing the experience of aging at a time when the global population of older adults is growing rapidly. By 2030, the number of people around the world who are age 60 and up is projected to grow by 56% to 1.4 billion, accounting for one in six people. By 2050, that count is expected to rise even further to 2.1 billion. 

Frances Ayalasomayajula, head of population health worldwide at HP, says in her research on older adults, the concerns that come up over and over again are all areas where technology can make a huge impact. “They want to stay as independent as they can for as long as they can,” she says. “The things that are front and center are security, privacy, access to information, and staying connected with a community.”

“Our goal is: How can we build a beautiful device that people want in their home and addresses the needs of older adults?”

—Sam Ogami, accessibility program manager, HP Inc.

Staying independent indefinitely

According to an AARP survey, 76% of Americans age 50 and older would prefer to age in place, or stay in their current homes as they grow older, but only 46% believe they’ll be able to. In designing technology solutions to help adults age in place, Ayalasomayajula says to look at how to make day-to-day life easier by removing obstacles or automating household tasks that people might find increasingly difficult to handle on their own as they age. For example, smart appliances that run errands for you, like smart refrigerators can sense when groceries are running low and add items to a shopping list or even order them for delivery.

Virtual assistants such as Google Home and Amazon Echo and their voice-command capabilities can prove especially useful for older adults. Many HP printers can work with virtual assistants, allowing users to print out grocery lists or to-do lists simply by asking. HP printers with HP Instant Ink also can sense ink levels and automatically have new cartridges shipped when they’re low. 

 “If you're in a wheelchair, it's a lot harder to get to traditionally positioned light switches, so a voice-based assistant can be very useful,” Charness says.  

Robots are the next step in automation at home, making life easier for everyone and potentially better and safer for older adults. Robot vacuums like iRobot’s Roomba are commonplace, and robots specifically geared to elder care are starting to emerge as well. Researchers at Washington State University recently tested a robot that uses sensors embedded throughout a person’s home to track when they need help and video technology to offer instructions for tasks like taking medication.

Illustration of Senior exercising using a VR headset in his living room.

Rose Wong

Safety first

Smart devices and automation can also help the aging population stay safe. For example, with smart stoves and ovens, people no longer have to worry about burning down the house because they’ve forgotten to turn off appliances. Similarly, programmable thermostats can help ensure that a person’s home stays at a safe and moderate temperature, no matter the weather, which is more than just an issue of comfort. Older people lose body heat faster and can become at risk of hypothermia before they even realize that they’re chilly, according to the National Institute on Aging.

Certain tech can also help faraway family members keep tabs on parents and other elderly relatives. Home-security systems, complete with motion-activated cameras and sensors, can help people keep a closer eye on their at-risk loved ones. And smart watches may be the ultimate tool in monitoring people for safety, with heart-rate tracking and fall-detection capabilities. A smartwatch could be able to sense that the user has fallen and alert emergency services if they are unable to respond to its messages.

And, Ayalasomayajula notes, safety concerns go beyond physical considerations. Seniors must be increasingly wary of financial scams, which frequently target older people. “Safety is  also about someone coming to your door or calling you on your phone or sending a fraudulent email, she says” 

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, financial institutions have reported more than 180,000 suspicious activities targeting older adults since 2013, involving more than $6 billion. Identity monitoring services, such as LifeLock and IdentityForce, can help by automatically tracking people’s credit reports, as well as other financial activities such as new account openings. Many banks and credit-card companies also offer some credit-tracking services and fraud alerts to customers for free.

Digital experiences, real-world connections

Staying connected with family and a broader community is another top concern for aging adults — and a growing body of research has shown that social connectedness has a significant impact on people’s overall health outcomes. 

“Basically, if you lack social connection, you're more likely to die sooner,” says Tracy L. Mitzner, senior research scientist for the Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation. “So it’s a dramatically important aspect in our lives that I think used to be somewhat undervalued.”

A smartphone or tablet is a valuable link to family and loved ones. “I remember going to one facility — a nursing home — where the reaction to the smartphone was, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got your whole family in your pocket,’” Ayalasomayajula says. For David and Judy Pollak, a couple in their early 70s in Silver Spring, Maryland, social media and different ways to communicate help them engage on a daily basis with their children and grandchildren, who live in New Jersey, Germany, and Israel. “It’s amazing,” says Judy. “I can see my grandchildren and my children and kind of kiss them and virtually hug them through the screen, which I wouldn’t be able to do if it wasn’t for WhatsApp and Facetime.”

Selfhelp Community Services, a New York City-based nonprofit, has developed a program called the Virtual Senior Center (VSC) to help homebound seniors stay connected and remain socially and mentally active. With the VSC software on an all-in-one desktop computer — which combines a computer, touch-screen monitor, webcam, microphone, and speakers all into a single device — users are able to access a secure online environment where they can gather together in weekly classes and actually see, hear, and talk to each other in real time. 

And the idea works. A case study of the VSC found that its usage reduced feelings of isolation by 85% and improved users’ perceived health status and computer literacy. Overall, 97% of participants reported that the program improved their quality of life.

Virtual reality can help take that communal experience to the next level, allowing users to meet  and immerse themselves in the same environments and experiences. From AARP Innovation Labs, virtual reality platform Alcove focuses on intergenerational connection, inviting family members from all over to join one another in a virtual living room. Participants can simply watch a movie together while virtually sitting side by side; peruse family photos hanging on the virtual walls; or even travel together.

VR technology can also give older adults the opportunity to experience new locations and activities that they otherwise couldn’t do. One virtual reality platform, MyndVR, has been used by residents of assisted living communities and other similar facilities, including people with cognitive ailments such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Through simulated experiences, they choose from a range of activities like skydiving or scuba diving, go on a virtual safari, fly a jet off of an aircraft carrier, or travel to destinations around the world. This can give them a sense of freedom and independence despite limited mobility — all while staying comfortable and safe.

Illustration of senior citizen couple having a video chat with grandchildren from their home computer.

Rose Wong

Designing for all ages

The growing population of aging adults has served as a wake-up call for product designers and tech companies that haven’t always considered their needs.  “An awful lot of technology has been designed without older adult capabilities in mind,” Charness says. “Like smartphones — with small screens and small print and small icons — those all make those devices difficult to use for older adults.”

Companies are working to change that and develop more products with an eye toward inclusion. “You don’t just turn a certain age and find you suddenly can’t use your computer or printer anymore,” says Sam Ogami, accessibility program manager at HP. “We’re working with our product teams to make sure we have flexibility and consistency in our devices, so HP products in your home and office will already have the features you need as you age.”

What are those features? Visually, Ogami says devices need options for large icons, large print, and sharp color contrast. Functionally, reducing complexity such as the number of clicks to navigate a program helps users find what they’re looking for intuitively.

Content is also important. For example, the Virtual Senior Center provides access to curated web pages that are popular among older people and activities they might enjoy, such as chair yoga and card games.

While there are devices and programs specifically designed for the older population, the most effective features make technology appealing and easier to use for all. 

“The goal here is not to make a special computer,” Ogami says. “Our goal is: How can we build a beautiful device that people want in their home and addresses the needs of older adults?”

Or as Ayalasomayajula puts it: “It’s not about designing for a particular population; it’s about designing for all.”