September 16, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Sarah Gaunt finds out why the elderly are taking to tablets (the computing variety)

grandfather grandson tablet shutterstock_177351701With tablets and smart phones always readily to hand, our post-millennial babies have thrived on rapidly evolving technology, developing into a digital generation that is better connected than any before them.  But with the tablet computer becoming ever cheaper to buy and easier to use, could Generation Z be about to lose their crown to the old kids on the block?  To find out, we got in touch with leading researchers at Michigan State University.

A recent exploration of device demographics has found that the small but mighty tablet computer may be the key to helping the elderly cross the ‘digital divide’.  In a world that is increasingly only accessible to the online community, the older generation is at risk of becoming alienated from those around them.  We spoke to Dr Shelia Cotten, a professor of media and information at MSU, to see how technology can help bridge the gap.

“I started to get interested in how technology could help older adults stay connected to others, and improve their quality of life,” she explained.  “Older adults are at increased risk of loneliness, social isolation, and depression. Using the Internet to communicate or find information may be one way to help decrease these negative outcomes as people age.”

So what is it about the tablet in particular that makes it such a hit with the elderly?  Shelia suggests it is all down to the simple, easy-to-use interface.  With the navigation of apps made by the swipe of a finger, the design is perfect for people with limited mobility. “The dexterity required to control a mouse is really hard for some older adults.  A certain level of muscle control is needed,” she added.

But it’s not just the physical ease of the tablet computer that makes them so accessible, according to Shelia.  Tech anxiety could also be a turn off for older adults.  “Many have never used computers, and feeling like they must learn to use them is daunting for some,” she said.  “Given the simpler interface design of tablets, it is easier for older adults to overcome the mental barriers to using them that are present with more traditional desktops and laptops.”

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Customised iPads for the elderly in Japan

One octogenarian who won’t be deterred by a technologically advancing world, is 88-year-old Sam Jacques, who has embraced the arrival of the iPad whole-heartedly.  “Getting around is a struggle for my wife and I, and we tend not to leave the house all that often,” he said.  “Being able to order the shopping online from home saves us the worry of how we will get out to the super-market.  It means we don’t have to rely on people to take us places every week.”  For Sam and his wife, the iPad is a way to keep hold of their independence, and allow them to enjoy the freedom of their retirement.

Furthering the studies from MSU, technology giant Apple has teamed up with IBM in Japan, creating a host of apps specifically for the senior citizen.  These apps will enable users to stay in touch, preserve their health, and like Sam and his wife, maintain an independent life in their later years.  Five million tailored iPads featuring these apps will be sent out across the country, hoping to link communities and improve mental health among the elderly.

Dr Cotten believes that if the Japanese project is successful, it will become a model for bridging the divide, being rolled out in countries the world over.  With the creation of age-specific apps, and the simplicity of tablet devices, it is certain that over the coming years, we will see an increasing number of golden agers joining the digital generation.


Sarah Gaunt is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Images: Grandfather reading to grandchild on tablet PC (Shutterstock); Customised iPads for the elderly in Japan (Flickr; Creative Commons)