Society | DOI: 10.1145/1562164.1562173
facing an age-old Problem
Researchers are addressing the computing challenges of older individuals,
whose needs are different—and too often disregarded.
It’s no sECrEt that computers and the Internet have changed society in ways that weren’t imaginable only a quarter-cen- tury ago. The ability to connect
with other people all over the globe,
read about events as they unfold, shop
online, and manage information has
profoundly changed the landscape—
and mind-set—of modern society.
More than three-quarters of households
in the U.S. have computers, and the numbers are exploding all over the world.
Today, it’s difficult to imagine a
world without computers. And while
the so-called digital divide remains—
the gulf between the affluent and poor
in terms of computer accessibility—
researchers are discovering that another
important barrier exists. “Many older
people face formidable challenges
when it comes to using computers,”
says Vicki Hanson, manager for the accessibility research group at IBM. “They
are different from other segments of
the population in terms of both cognitive and physical capabilities.”
The challenges of dealing with an aging world population haven’t been lost
on researchers, psychologists, and technology designers. Although computer
and software manufacturers have made
some strides in building easier-to-use
systems—including specialized Web
browsers, ergonomic mice and keyboards, and accessibility functions such
as the ability to zoom and magnify text
and graphics—there is still a long way to
go to provide a computing environment
that’s ideal for older individuals.
“Technology creates a lot of potential in terms of enhancing the quality
of life, independence, and well-being
of older adults,” observes Sara J. Czaja,
professor of psychiatry and behavioral
sciences and director of the center on
research and education for aging and
technology at the University of Miami.
“It opens up work and personal opportunities and allows older adults to stay
socially connected. But this group has
creating an ideal computing environment for older adults poses many challenges.
different needs and they’re too often
As commerce, health care, government
services, and work migrate online,
the need to use computing devices is
shifting from desirable to essential.
According to Czaja, older individuals don’t have any particular aversion
“When people of
any age can’t figure
things out,” says
Sara J. czaja,
“they tend to avoid
to using computers and technology.
“They are entirely receptive,” she says.
So, where does the problem lie? “They
often don’t understand the benefits or
they’re unable to use the system easily,” she says. “When people of any age
can’t figure things out, they tend to
avoid the technology.”
The challenges are growing. As
computing expands from desktop
and notebook systems to a wider universe of devices—including phones,
home entertainment centers, navigation systems in cars, security systems,
and high-tech climate controls—older
adults are increasingly feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. “There are
a lot of older people who have a lot of
trouble with mobile phones. They simply can’t use a typical phone because
the interface is confusing and the buttons are too small,” Czaja explains.
Yet, poor vision, shaky fingers, and
fading memory are only a few of the
manifestations of older age. It’s not
unusual for individuals to experience