Older Americans and particularly those over 85—sometimes called "the old old"—are not participating in the online revolution. There are rosy predictions for how easy-to-use technology will help them. Tablet computers require little technical skills. Digital assistants can be accessed by voice commands and respond to plain spoken English. Tools for people with hearing and vision impairments are proliferating. However, there is next to no evidence that these efforts have made a material impact.
About 4 in 10 people who are 65 or older use the Internet, according to the Pew Research Center. That's sharply less than younger age groups. Among boomers ages 50 to 64, for example, 74 percent use the Internet, and the percentages flirt with 100 when it comes to young Americans as well as households making more than $100,000 a year.
Let's take a deeper look at that 65-plus average. Odds are that it masks a gradual decline in Internet use as we age. In other words, more than 74 percent of 50-year-olds are online, while a smaller percentage of people who are 64 use the Internet.
Likewise, it's a safe bet that more than 41 percent of 65-year-olds use the Internet. But usage rates fall off at older ages. A detailed survey of technology use by older people was conducted last year by Linkage, an Ohio-based company that provides consulting and business services to more than 450 retirement communities in 16 states.
Last year, Linkage sent questionnaires to 5,000 community residents—paper questionnaires. Then it followed up, and worked to help people complete the survey. That included reading the questions to people whose failing eyesight prevented from being able to read. More than a third of the 5,000 residents completed the survey.
The point of this labor-intensive effort was to get a true reading of how older people use technology. "Unlike more typical surveys, 71 percent of the Linkage Technology Survey Responders were older than age 75," its report said. "Some of them suffered from vision or mobility impairments and their responses were transcribed. In terms of income and residence, the survey was also unique in that approximately half of the responders indicated that they rent their homes and have annual incomes of less than $25,000."
Here were the percentages of older persons using various technologies:
Smart phone: 3 percent
Tablet: 3 percent
eReader: 5 percent
Laptop: 8 percent
PC: 41 percent
Cell phone: 61 percent
Wireless: 16 percent
Internet access: 33 percent
Asked how they wanted to acquire their high-tech skills, going online through Google searches or other pathways was not high on their list. Residents strongly preferred to be taught one-on-one by someone they trusted. Their first choice for guidance? Their doctors. Further, the prices of technology products and online access were beyond the reach of many older consumers.
"Affordability and access are two things that I believe need to be part of the conversation before you even talk about a specific technology," says Scott Collins, president of Linkage.
"Technology is an enabler; it is not the solution," he adds. Further, using high-tech tools can be a solitary act that creates "unintended opportunities for isolation. This idea that people are going to get all their socialization through the Internet is just not going to happen."
"People think that somehow boomers are going to trump biology" in terms of being able to stay technically proficient as they get older, Collins says, "but it's not going to happen."
People with Parkinson's, for example, face challenges in using most of the small, touch-screen devices now on the market, he observes. The new iPhone has won raves for its digital assistant, called Siri. But what if the user can't hear? Or what if they have macular degeneration and can't see the screen on a computing device?
"We are convinced that the oldest old today are the last generation to take such limited advantage or believe in the touted tech of the moment," says Laurie Orlov, a consultant who specializes in how older people use technology, and who worked on the Linkage report. "The accelerating pace of tech change will leave those who are resistant to rapid change completely in the future dust. And those who are resistant to rapid change will be those who have lived the longest and want to hold on to what they know and like," she says.