5 Ways to Join the Personal Technology Party

Experts agree seniors are being left behind as communications become increasingly online and visual.

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Most Americans are part of the digital revolution, whether it be the new iPad, the latest smartphone, or any number of other electronic communications devices. Most older Americans are not, and the widening digital divide is worrisome. Fewer than 40 percent of people aged 65 and older used the Internet last year. Adoption rates for more sophisticated communications tools are correspondingly smaller.

[See Join 560 Million "Skypers" Making Free Calls.] The Center for Technology and Aging, with funding from the SCAN Foundation, recently brought together a panel of technology experts. They discussed ways in which social media and other emerging communications tools might be used by seniors themselves to make sure their voices are heard on key public policy issues affecting them. But unless more seniors use these tools, they won't be able to turn up the volume loud enough.

For example, Israel's Good Samaritan Project allows a cellphone user to text message requests for help. Using GPS (global positioning system), the program can alert people nearby who have signed up to be Good Samaritans, and they can provide help quickly. What a great tool, and potential comfort, for older persons. But they have to know about such benefits first. And providing that education is very, very challenging.

Here are five things that communications providers and senior-service advocates should consider to help older consumers take fuller advantage of powerful communications tools and devices.

1) KISS -- Keep It Simple Stupid! To many younger technology users, there is no such thing as "too complicated" when it comes to the latest hand-held mobile device. Not so with older consumers, especially people who have never used online and wireless gadgets. It is daunting to confront something new when you don't understand what it can do or why you might benefit from using its capabilities. Oh, and you don't have a clue how to turn it on and use it. The iPad was cited in the panel's report as an example of the kind of intuitive, easy-to-use tool that can be a real technology icebreaker for older consumers.

[See 10 Steps to View the Internet on Your TV.]

2) Make It Personal. The "I get it" light bulb that seems embedded in younger technology users needs cultivating in people who like their clocks with hands and not read-outs. Bringing communications technology down to the personal level is essential to engage older consumers. All too often, that step is bypassed or covered up by the cloud of coolness that surrounds new technologies. Also, making it personal also needs to include product features designed with older users, older fingers, and older eyes in mind.

3) Make It Relevant. Creating very practical pathways between a gizmo and a genuine benefit is a key to success. Technology is rarely an end in itself for older users but a means to achieving a desired goal. Explaining these linkages can spur more seniors to adopt new technologies.

4) Enhance Independence and Control. The field of telemedicine is exploding. This includes health-monitoring devices that can literally be lifesavers. However, they need to be explained and marketed to seniors as tools to extend their independence and control over their surroundings. Too often, it can appear that monitoring devices are digital tethers that track movements and behaviors, and are designed more to help caregivers than the older consumer.

5) Build a Team of Helpers. Caregivers, family members, social-service agencies, and other champions are needed to explain, reassure, and help older consumers.

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