Defying stereotype, seniors go high-tech

Many embrace new gadgets if they are useful, fun

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Gene Gould owns a computer, cell phone, iPod, image scanner and digital camera.

William Gothard doesn't.

Gould is 77; Gothard is 74 - close in age, but remote in their opinions of modern electronics.

Several factors influence whether an older adult embraces or rejects newer technologies. Either way, it's clear that, as a group, seniors don't fit the stereotype that they can't keep up with the times.

"There are early adopters, late adopters and nonadopters to new technologies, no matter what the age of the person," said Kathy Segrist, associate director of Ball State University's Fisher Institute for Wellness and Gerontology in Muncie, Ind. "What may be interpreted as fear can be a conscious choice to not adopt."

The Washington-based Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that 32 percent of Americans 65 and older go online, compared with 88 percent of those 18 to 29, 84 percent of those 30 to 49 and 71 percent of those 50 to 64.

Researchers believe older individuals might be more inclined to use advanced technology if they have:

An education of some high school or beyond.

Prior exposure, perhaps through work.

Financial security.

Confidence in their comprehension of new tasks.

Adequate cognitive abilities, including memory and reasoning.

Many times, older adults conduct an internal cost-benefit analysis, researchers say.

Suppose a woman has kept her addresses and phone numbers in a well-worn notebook decorated with doodles and notes spanning years, muses Joseph Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab in Cambridge. A personal digital assistant - able to store and organize far more information - would be more efficient. But learning how it works and transcribing all the entries would be a chore, and she might ask, "Do I really need the grief of going through this?"

For Gothard, of Sciota, Pa., the answer is a strong "no."

Gothard identifies with the Luddites, the 19th-century English laborers who destroyed new machinery they considered a threat to their jobs. He takes pride in never having had a driver's license or a credit card.

"I feel you can live a very satisfying life without ever pressing a button on a computer or walking around with your toy cell phone glued to your ear, speaking nonsense," he said.

Gothard, a lifelong artist, would rather be painting in his home studio: low-tech and gratifying.

Meanwhile, Gould, of Sterling, Va., who worked for a computer services subsidiary of Boeing Co. before retiring, feels that his gadgets enrich his life.

He uses his iPod - the popular portable digital audio device - to play tunes for residents of a nearby retirement community, sometimes using the Internet to find what they request. At a local senior center, he teaches older adults how to restore old photos. He has spent hours touching up his family snapshots and transferring from vinyl to digital the vast music collection that he and his wife, Juanita, 77, have amassed over 54 years of marriage.

"You don't do this unless you enjoy it," Gould said.

Technology can be more than a diversion for older adults. It can keep them connected to friends and family, particularly grandchildren being raised with the Internet. It can help them research answers to health-related questions, remind them to take medication or alert caretakers if they need help.

In other words, technology can be vital to their well-being, said Neil Charness, a psychology professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a principal investigator with the multi-university Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement.

When an older adult regards technology with ambivalence or anxiety, Charness wonders, "To what extent is poor design one of the factors?"

Aging can diminish hearing, sight and dexterity. Response times can lag. Some simple adjustments, Charness notes, can make computers easier to operate. Users can set visual warnings to accompany audio alerts, enlarge font sizes and reduce pointer speed.

"As an aging society, we have a stake in adapting these technologies," said Michael Smyer, director of the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. "How do we assure the best fit between what older adults want to do and can do?"

Among features that might help are voice activation and touch screens.

While teaching at the Boston University School of Medicine, Timothy Bickmore helped develop a program designed to encourage older adults to exercise by taking walks. In a 2003 study, users ages 62 to 84 interacted daily for two months with a lifelike animated character on a computer screen set up in their homes.

The character, a racially ambiguous woman named Laura who might have been in her 30s or 40s, verbally asked participants questions about their fitness goals, how they were feeling and how much walking they had done. The participants chose from a list of possible responses by touching the screen. Laura offered words of advice and encouragement. That kind of interface was easy to learn, and walking increased.

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