Forget the image of Grandma tracking down the latest cutting edge technology news in mobile feed reader, or Uncle Joe whose retirement has been filled with Diggs, Tweets, and Facebook pokes. According to Mark McMurtrey, Ronald McGaughey, and James Downey, at the University of Central Arkansas, the elderly internet user, the so-called silver surfer generation, is actually a myth.
More often than not, seniors, perhaps with eyesight problems or limited manual dexterity, are limited in the activities they can undertake on the internet. They face serious obstacles, not because of a lack of desire or understanding of modern information and communications technology, but because the software and hardware they need to use to access ICT tools are generally designed by younger people for younger and do not take into consideration the problems would be silver surfers might face.
The researchers have investigated the degree to which many elderly people are marginalized by modern technology. What fit, youngsters enjoy as slick touch screens and tiny keyboards often represent an insurmountable barrier to many other users. It is, of course, an issue that can face anyone with a disability or health problem, whether young or old, but is particularly apparent to the growing sector of society represented by the elderly.
“The elderly represent an increasing proportion of the population, yet scant attention has been paid to them in terms of access and use of ICT related products,” the team explains in the International Journal Intercultural Information Management.
To put it another way, it’s all very well handing over the keys to a new car* to someone, but if their feet don’t reach the pedals or they cannot see over the steering wheel, it is useless technology to them. Unless they hire a chauffeur, of course.
A few elderly have access to a digital chauffer (sometimes a grandchild). But, more often than not, in an increasingly fragmented society where family ties are not quite as strong as the ties that bind Twitter buddies, this is often not the case. Moreover, it is not necessarily technical skills that are lacking, while the desire for independence is as strong as ever.
McMurtrey and colleagues suggest that finding ways to remove the obstacles to ICT use for seniors is not an issue the industry should ignore. Indeed, given the shifting demographic towards a greater and greater proportion of people living well beyond retirement age thanks to medical advances and improved nutrition** forward-thinking manufacturers of hardware and software should see that the senior sector of society represents a potentially rapidly expanding market.
Many elderly have more resources than their younger counterparts that they can spend on ICT. If products tailored to seniors and their specific needs are designed a readymade market of eager silver surfers awaits. For the wily marketer, disenfranchised could become franchised quite readily. But, it is more than that, of course.
“Ignoring our seniors contributes to the so-called ‘grey digital divide’ between older and younger computer users,” the researchers say. It is not just about improving their quality of life, it is not just about cashing in on a new market, it is about giving everyone the opportunity to take part and reap the rewards of the digital age.
McMurtrey, M., McGaughey, R., & Downey, J. (2009). Seniors and information technology: A potential goldmine of opportunity? International Journal of Intercultural Information Management, 1 (3) DOI: 10.1504/IJIIM.2009.025371
*Increasingly limited options given GM’s current status of course
**Unfortunately something some young ICT users seem to want to reverse through burger and cola addiction.