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Researchers Urge Senior-Friendly Tech Designs

October 26, 2009
While more older adults are using cell phones and computers, a technology gap still exists that threatens to turn senior citizens into second-class citizens, according to Florida State University researchers?Neil Charness, the William G. Chase Professor of Psychology, and Walter R. Boot, assistant professor of psychology. They found that both the attitudes and abilities of older adults pose barriers to adopting new forms of technology. “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,” said Charness, who along with Boot received a $1.5 million, five-year subcontract from a National Institute of Aging grant to support the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE), established a decade ago to study ways to increase technology use in order to promote cognition and health in older Americans. Though everything from booking airline tickets to seeking health care information is easier, cheaper or faster online, and older adults who are less mobile in particular stand to benefit from innovations such as online banking, there is a sharp decline in Internet use after age 65. A recent Pew Tracking Survey that showed 85 percent of adults under 44 used the Internet while only 39 percent of adults between 65 and 74 and 24 percent of adults between 75 and 84 were Internet users. Declining cognitive processes, decreased memory capacity and difficulty maintaining attention—all part of the normal aging process— can make it difficult for seniors to learn new skills. The extra time and effort required are among the reasons why older adults are generally less motivated, particularly if they decide that the potential benefits of the new technology are not worth it. In addition, seniors may make a greater number of errors as they interact with technology that was not designed with their capabilities in mind. Changes in acuity, color perception and susceptibility to glare affect the way they see a computer screen, and they have greater difficulty with fine motor control and coordination. Designers can create better products for older adults, the researchers said, such as cell phones with simplified menus, large fonts and buttons and external noise reduction and websites with high contrast backgrounds and text, larger fonts and minimal scrolling, and navigation aids and instructional support. Although the technology gap between younger and older adults is expected to lessen over time as more adults “grow up” with computers, the problem will not disappear in future generations because technology will undoubtedly continue to advance rapidly, and age-related declines in cognitive, perceptual and psychomotor skills will make it more difficult for seniors to keep up with the changes.