Senior Age Tech: The good and the bad regarding tech
It’s a well-known fact that the world has gone digital. Unfortunately, some older adults who do not have laptops or smartphones—or have them but do not know how to use them—are finding themselves left out of the digital revolution.
This was most evident when routine activities came to a screeching halt due to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Shifts were made from in-person to online interactions to reduce the risk of further spreading COVID-19. Government lockdowns were designed to protect the public from the coronavirus, but the mandates further widened the digital gap for older adults.
Some countries, like China and Australia, mandated citizens to use QR codes to make COVID-19 contact tracing easier and reduce further spread of the coronavirus. QR (short for Quick Response) codes are similar to bar codes. When scanned, the QR code can show a person’s health profile, and contact, and travel history.
QR codes became a problem for seniors who did not have a smartphone or who, like Mr. Zhang in China, could not locate the app on their smartphone. Zhang, a 65-year-old retired factory clerk, said he was heading to a doctor’s appointment one day but was not allowed on a bus because he did not know how to access his COVID-19 contact tracing app. While he has a smartphone, Zhang says he doesn’t really understand how to use it. And, sometimes he forgets to take his phone with him.
In the United States, some county health departments in Florida shifted their system for scheduling COVID-19 vaccine appointments from phone to online reservations. This was a problem for Catherine Phillips and her husband because the Holiday, Florida, residents do not have a computer and the Pasco County Health Department stopped taking phone calls for appointments.
Phillips called the change “ridiculous” because she does not have what she describes as “all this fancy equipment” like younger people. Phillips said she asked someone else to schedule an appointment when more becomes available.
Trudy Baker, a Pinellas County resident, was trying to make an online reservation for a COVID-19 vaccination but had to figure out how to find the website. Once she found a link to the website, the page never loaded. At the same time, Baker said she called the department about 21 times and was cut off each time. So, she finally gave up.
Baker said if it was a horrible experience for her, and she considers herself somewhat knowledgeable about technology, she could see how seniors with no computer skills can get frustrated. Baker believes the reservation system was not set up with seniors in mind and recommends having something easier for seniors to get onto to make a reservation.
Seniors Learning How to Use Technology
In some cases, older adults are being forced into the digital world, while others are entering in on their own terms. In both cases, seniors are getting help from people like Tony Rothacker, to navigate through the unfamiliar digital territory.
Rothacker is the founder of Youngster.co, an Australian social technology company that provides job opportunities for teens 16 years old and older to teach seniors how to use technology. Rothacker jumped in when the New South Wales (NSW) government-mandated citizens use QR codes to assist health authorities in conducting contact tracing and for businesses to collect information from their patrons.
Rothacker’s Youngster.co teamed up with state libraries to initiate a pilot project in which technology-challenged seniors met at participating libraries with tech-savvy teens who taught them how to use computers and smartphones.
Ruth Holmes, an 80-year-old resident of the small town of Dorrigo, said she had a smartphone but wasn’t sure how to use it until she met with two teens from Youngster.co. Holmes said her instructors showed her how to download the Service NSW app, how to use QR codes, and how to use her phone. Holmes was so motivated by her session, that she asked her teen instructors about how to download a frog-identifying app and a plant ID app so that she can find out what plants she has on her property.
Holmes said there’s not much computer training for seniors in her small community or help with what to do with smartphones. So, Holmes thinks it’s “wonderful” for Youngster.co to come and “help us old people out.”
Realizing the struggles older adults were having because of their lack of digital skills, China’s State Council issued measures to improve seniors’ use of technology while ensuring that non-digital services are maintained so that older adults can get their basic needs met.
The council’s mandate came after a public outcry occurred in November over a video that went viral of a son lifting his 94-year-old mother off the ground because she was too petite for the facial recognition scan to activate her social security card.
Since then, Zhang signed up for weekly classes that teach seniors how to use their smartphones. Huang Qian, the course instructor, said he developed the course to help older adults struggling with contact tracing apps. He now has 20 students, between the ages of 60 to 89, in his class.
Older Adults Trending on Social Media in China
While some seniors are finding it difficult to enter the digital age, some older adults in China are already trending on digital content platforms, like Letuizu.
Xiao Lijun initially started Letuizu as an online social and information platform for older adults and moved into featuring short videos in 2018. Lijun recruited five grandfathers and five grandmothers from a national fashion show that featured older adults as models and made fashion and daily life-related videos to show on Letuizu.
The videos had more than 3 million followers on both Kuaishou, a Chinese video-sharing mobile app, and Douyin, a short video platform developed by ByteDance, the Chinese Internet tech company that also developed TikTok, the popular video-sharing network.
Lijun, 32, said videos of older adults are “breaking the stereotype” of seniors who, in China, are often viewed as “passive and unsophisticated.” Lijun describes these seniors as “key opinion leaders” who are showing that it’s possible that seniors can be “beautiful and graceful” in a different way than younger people.