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Digital Aging: Computers and Today's Seniors

Part I: Four Myths About Seniors and Computers

Today, most of us take our computers for granted—in the workplace, in our homes, at the doctor's office, in our pockets and in our cars. But early on, researchers expressed concerns about the "digital divide"—the line between those with computer skills and access, and those without.

Grandfather using computer with granddaughtersFlorida State University researcher Neil Charness points 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? This month in Caring Right at Home, we begin a four-part series about the ways computers are revolutionizing the way we age in America. Let's begin 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 computer basics 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. For example, according to a recent report from the Pew Foundation, only 42% of people 65 and over use the Internet. But seniors are catching up: 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 email, playing computer 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. 

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 motor impairment, and adaptive hardware such as keyboards with larger letters and arthritis-compatible mice. 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 seniors need to be computer literate to stay in touch with the world today, but they 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 and transportation challenges. The Internet can be a great source of information about "real world" activities and events, providing incentive to remain active in the community. And surfing the web itself 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—and did you know that going on the Internet gives the memory a good workout? A 2009 UCLA study showed that as seniors are performing simple web searches, blood flow increases in areas of the brain that are vital for memory and thinking. 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. Dr. Arthur Kramer of the University of Illinois also pointed out that seniors were more motivated to play these types of games than to use brain exercise programs. Seniors, don't forget to apologize when you slay your grandkid's "main character" in World of Warcraft!

Myth #4: Online social networking is only for young people

Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, 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.

As we saw in the September 2009 issue of Caring Right at Home, socialization is a vital component of healthy aging. Did you know that online socialization is a great way to supplement and increase "in real life" friendships? In the next issue, we'll take a look at the new age of seniors online, and learn about some of the opportunities for staying connected! See "Grandma Friended Me! Seniors and Social Networking" to learn more.

For More Information

Microsoft offers information on computer accessibility for older adults and people with disabilities. See Computing Guide for Boomers and the Accessibility Resources page to learn more about making your PC easier to see, hear and use.

Read the Pew Internet & American Life Project's 2009 Generations Online report to learn more about trends in senior computer literacy.

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Right at Home is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned, franchised providers of in-home care and assistance services.


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