The OECD Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—to exchange expertise and perspectives across sectors. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
There's never been a better time for older adults to embrace the digital world. Whether it's staying in contact with family and friends or improving their overall health, digital literacy is key. It can make their lives easier by connecting them with services, devices and platforms tailored to their interests and needs and that aid their mental and physical health. While learning technology can be intimidating for those who didn't grow up with personal computers and smartphones—"late adopters”—the benefits of becoming tech-savvy are worth the time and effort.
Learning technology can help older adults avoid social isolation and its associated health risks
A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) found that nearly a quarter of adults aged 65 and older are socially isolated. Studies show that the detrimental effects of social isolation on mental and physical health are staggering, so social connectedness is a key to staying healthy. The health risks of loneliness include increased mortality by 26%, heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, depression, and an increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline.
Social media platforms and conference call software can help older adults maintain existing relationships.
Technology can help older adults stay connected and avoid loneliness by creating new social environments and communities. They can use it to make friends with people who have similar interests or values, or find support groups that help them deal with the challenges that come with aging.
In addition, technology can be used to improve existing social relationships and make them more convenient. For example, an older adult might use a video chat app or an online game platform to spend time with grandchildren who live far away from them. Or they might use email or text messaging apps to stay in touch with family members or friends who don't live nearby.
Social media platforms and conference call software can help older adults maintain existing relationships by providing opportunities for communication and interaction in a more convenient way than traditional methods like face-to-face meetings or phone calls.
International Day of Universal Access to Information: How to make this a reality for all by Laura Neuman, Senior Advisor, Rule of Law Program, The Carter Center
Technology use can help older adults maintain their physical health
Technology can help older adults stay physically fit by providing the tools they need to keep up with their fitness regime and monitor their health. While only 3.3% of wearable device users are over 65, it is worth working on expanding the market. With wearable tech, older adults can monitor their heart rate, sleep patterns and other essential health metrics from their homes. When explicit permission is given, this information can then be monitored by caregivers and medical professionals to help ensure that health issues are treated as soon as they appear.
Wearables like smartwatches and other health tech can be used to track daily activity levels and get reminders for when to start exercising, drink water, or go to bed.
Wearables can also be linked with apps to connect older adults with others who share similar interests or goals—such as running or working out at specific times—making it easier for them to find workout partners when needed or track their performance. Many wearables offer gamification options that they can use with loved ones whether they are working out or not.
Plus, now there are online fitness classes geared towards older adults, such as chair yoga, tai chi, qi gong and many more, which take into account potential physical limitations.
Technology can help older adults access medical care
For many people, it can be challenging to get to a doctor's office. Telemedicine is changing this by allowing patients to connect with health care providers virtually. Patients save time and money by avoiding a trip to the doctor's office or hospital, and they can also skip the hassle of co-ordinating transportation to and from appointments.
While telemedicine can't replace all doctors' appointments, it can help as a resource for reviewing exams, non-emergency check-ups, follow-ups and more. Telemedicine is especially beneficial for older adults with mobility problems, as well as those in rural areas where it can be difficult to access medical care. Thanks to telemedicine, many can receive high-quality medical care from doctors miles away.
More and more sites are offering virtual mental health support so people can be in a safe and comfortable space as they discuss challenges they are dealing with in life.
In addition, telemedicine can help reduce healthcare costs for patients with chronic conditions requiring frequent monitoring. It also allows them to receive treatment from specialists who may not be located near them, which would otherwise be impossible.
Furthermore, it can make therapy through virtual platforms an asset to people of all ages. More and more sites are offering virtual mental health support so people can be in a safe and comfortable space as they discuss challenges they are dealing with in life. The ability to take unfamiliar offices or the chance a stranger overhears a therapy session out of the equation means people are more likely to stick with mental health regimes.
As health and well-being move more and more into the digital realm, it will be essential that older adults understand how to best utilise these tools and bridge the digital divide. One key to that is ensuring that older adults have internet access: for example, 42% of older Americans lack a broadband connection. The other component is a supportive learning environment that isn’t intimidating for late adopters of technology.
Technology can help older adults age in place
A recent study found that 77% of older adults want to stay at home as they age. Advances in technology can allow people to stay at home longer, be more independent and stay safe.
Older adults can also stay safe and healthy by using voice recognition devices to turn on the lights in the house when paired with smart bulbs. This helps prevent falls and lowers the risk of tripping over an unseen obstacle.
Technology can help older adults co-ordinate with caregivers by providing everyone involved with more accessible means to communicate. Caregivers can set reminders for daily activities like taking medication or performing a check-in. This can help caregivers keep up with patients even if they can't be physically present. They can also help seniors schedule appointments via a shared calendar.
Overcoming obstacles to technology literacy for older adults
Technology and its advantages are only realised when older adults can understand how to use the devices. While a recent study found that 73% of older adults overall in the United States use the internet, usage drops with age. Among 65- to 69-year-olds 82% use the internet, while only 44% of people over 80 do.
It’s essential to consider a few things when educating older adults and overcoming the digital divide. It can be intimidating to learn new technology.
There is still a long way to go to ensure older adults are empowered to use technology. There's a steep learning curve because many older adults are late adopters. For example, many older adults retired before computers were common in the workplace, so they don't have the base knowledge to understand a language that is second nature to younger people. This makes it difficult from a design perspective: developers aren't always able to anticipate the user experience concerns of someone who has never used technology.
It’s essential to consider a few things when educating older adults and overcoming the digital divide. It can be intimidating to learn new technology. There can be a language barrier when using technical jargon with older adults. There may be vision issues and an inability to read small text. For people with arthritis and other ailments that affect their mobility, it can be challenging to type. And there's not always someone willing and with the patience to teach them. That's why platforms like GetSetUp are so significant—older adults can learn to use technology from their peers who can relate to them and their needs in an unintimidating, interactive, frictionless and virtual environment.
As the older adult population grows, it's essential to ensure that such individuals are equipped with the proper tools to help them deal with their physical and mental health concerns. Technology is undoubtedly playing its role in this and will only become more helpful as time goes on. Ultimately, technology offers older adults more opportunities to maintain their overall health, stay connected with others and feel more positive about their lives. But it's important to remember that technology is only one part of a holistic well-being programme. When appropriately employed, technology can be an effective tool in maintaining older adults' general health.
Please sign in or register for FREE
If you are a registered user on The OECD Forum Network, please sign in