By Mark Luck Olson
Seniors are certainly less tech-savvy than younger generations who grew up with it. My parents are from the World War II generation, long before there was the personal computer, let alone the internet. Trying to help my aging mother with email is a challenge. But just because some may not know how to use TikTok, what a nonfungible token is or how to make the WiFi work doesn’t mean they are technology averse.
Of course, it is harder for seniors to adapt to new technology. Even so, the majority of older people have a smartphone and frequently post on social media and video chat with their grandchildren.
Far too many digital health companies mistakenly assume that because some older people struggle with new technology at first, they are totally averse to it. The problem is that digital health companies more often than not fail to design products with seniors in mind.
With the boom in virtual health, a wave of innovation and new technology is making it possible for seniors to age at home. This explosion in consumer-focused digital health is fundamentally about turning healthcare delivery upside down – from the patient visiting the healthcare system periodically to a system where healthcare is in our back pocket 24/7 on our terms.
For seniors who are less physically mobile and may lack transportation and companionship, this idea is even more crucial. Technology can greatly benefit older people, making it convenient and safe to connect with healthcare professionals and follow virtual health plans from the comfort of their own homes. In fact, technology use among people aged 50 and up has skyrocketed during the pandemic, according to an AARP report. Over the last decade, according to Pew Research Center, older people have increasingly adopted technology like smartphones and tablets, and used social media. Businesswise, seniors make up a good portion of the population, and Medicare spending of nearly $830 billion in 2020 makes up 20% of total National Healthcare Expenditure.
The evolving definition of ‘elderly’
The definition of “old” isn’t what it used to be. The next generation of seniors will have spent much of their middle years using the internet, smartphones, tablets and various software applications, better positioning them to navigate the next iteration of high-tech gizmos and gadgets. Soon there will be no generation that isn’t used to technology being intertwined with daily activities.
For better or worse, retirement isn’t guaranteed as much as it once was, as more people continue to work after 65 – either because they have to, or they want to. According to a 2021 survey, nearly one in five seniors said they planned to work past the age of 70, and another 12% reported they would work full time for the rest of their lives. The image of a senior sitting in a rocking chair drinking lemonade all day is no longer accurate, if it ever was. For those working into their golden years, many will continue to use new and relevant technology regularly.
Seniors use technology that is helpful for them
Trying to get a grip on the latest technology can be overwhelming and frustrating for seniors. But to then jump to a conclusion that most old people have an aversion to technology is flat out wrong.
Two years into the pandemic, older people, like everyone else, have also had to get more comfortable with virtual health technologies. With fewer in-person healthcare options combined with the risk of COVID-19, older people who have chronic health conditions, mobility issues or other healthcare needs are increasingly willing to turn toward virtual health services and products so they don’t have to leave the home. Aging at home is a trend that is expected to grow bigger in the years ahead, requiring digital health companies to target the aging population.
Digital health for seniors needs to be simple, frictionless
The need for digital health to improve the lives of seniors is there, and the willingness among seniors to use technology is growing. What’s needed is for digital health companies to rise to meet the moment by designing frictionless services and products. That means tricky sensors are out. In fact, ditch the hardware altogether. Forget about asking a senior to fiddle with sensors that require Bluetooth or WiFi. The user interface has to be simple, simple, simple.
In addition to making digital health as easy as possible for older people to use, the products need to take a human-centered approach to care. COVID-19 isn’t only a pandemic of illness; it has spurred a pandemic of isolation as well, particularly impacting older people. Digital health technology should not further fuel separation but rather inspire connectivity. With a click or a tap of the finger, a senior should be able to communicate with a health coach, start a video call with a medical professional or follow an exercise routine from their phone, tablet or desktop computer. Building relationships and trust are essential, as is having a virtual support team who can watch over seniors and intervene when needed.
Sadly, American culture doesn’t value its aging population as much as it could, giving rise to the negative stereotype that seniors are less capable, especially when it comes to technology. Yes, there is a generational gap, but that doesn’t mean digital health companies should treat seniors as irrelevant. The pandemic has shone a light on the need for more digital health solutions aimed at seniors, and research demonstrates they’re willing to adopt new technologies. Seniors deserve new digital health technologies just as much – if not more – than younger people.