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As our lives increasingly move online, older adults are often left out
Jun 20, 2023

As our lives increasingly move online, older adults are often left out

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Three-quarters of those 65 and older now use the internet, the Pew Research Center found. But that doesn’t mean their online lives are easy.

For a lot of us, most of our days are spent online, and the pandemic only increased that pace. That’s also true for the way we do business. Utilities, restaurants, health care providers, the government — they all want us to go to an app or a website to get stuff done. 

This can be easy and convenient, especially for people who don’t remember a world before the web. But many older adults are left out by the move to digital.

Mildred Lovell was one of them. Recently she was bent over her laptop at the Brooklyn Public Library during a tech coaching session with the library’s digital literacy associate, Nicshel Samedi. For several months he’s been teaching her skills from how to use her cellphone’s hot spot to how to manage and save files.

Lovell is only 62, but she’s spent her career interacting with people, not computers. For the past 16 years she’s run a day care center. But when she began studying for a doctorate online, she realized her basic tech skills wouldn’t cut it. She appreciated how patient Samedi is.

For older people, “you need the patience,” Lovell said. “Because otherwise I’ll start crying in front of you. I cannot get it right!” 

She was joking. Kind of. Technology has reduced her to tears in the past, but she said those days are behind her. 

New York City has a growing number of older adults, nearly half, like Lovell, born outside the United States. A bill is making its way through the city council to establish a free tech support program for adults over 65, with help over the phone in multiple languages. 

According to the Pew Research Center, three-quarters of those 65 and older now use the internet. The majority also owns a smartphone. But that doesn’t mean their online lives are easy.

That stereotype that older people can’t learn new things is false, said Dr. Sara Czaja, who directs the Center on Aging and Behavioral Research at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.

“Our work has shown over and over again it’s not that people can’t learn, certainly they can learn,” Czaja said. “It may take them longer because of changes in processing speed.” 

But she added that even as our aging brains process information more slowly, they retain plenty of plasticity, that is, the ability to change and adapt to new experiences. 

But why don’t makers of technology adapt to the needs of older adults? 

Don Norman, former Apple vice president and usability expert, is 87. He said the problem is that younger people usually design the tech we use in our daily lives.  

“Since many of the people who have these problems are above retirement age, you have to bring those people into your design process,” Norman said.

He said ideally, young designers would work with an older person alongside them and incorporate any feedback. After all, good design works for everyone. But Norman said often in his experience with companies, “they think that they are experts, and they don’t design for the real customers they have who they truly do not understand.” 

Some organizations recognize their digital services don’t serve everybody, said Amas Tenumah. He’s a customer experience consultant and author of the book “Waiting for Service.” 

One of his clients was a big bank whose older customers were fuming that the bank was unreachable, as its website and phone line were so hard to navigate.

“But in the end, there was nothing in the data that suggested that there was churn, that they were leaving,” Tenumah said. “And so this faceless, nameless corporation will continue to do whatever it’s going to do until there’s economic pressure.” 

And there wasn’t any. Tenumah found seniors weren’t quitting because joining another bank meant jumping through more digital hoops. They couldn’t face it. 

He said some organizations have created separate lanes for older consumers — say, a phone line just for them. The problem is, word soon gets out to the younger crowd, and once that happens, he said, “they will overwhelm it.”

So the folks who end up taking advantage of that option aren’t the people it was designed for. 

People like Jim Mayer. Mayer is 83 and shops online, uses Zoom, and has a smartphone. Still, when he thinks about doing things digitally, an old nursery rhyme comes to mind.

“The internet is like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead,” he said. “When she’s good, she’s very, very good, and when she’s bad, she’s horrid.” 

Sometimes he gets tangled up in a blizzard of options and runs into problems that take ages to resolve. He said when that happens, he’d love to talk to a human who could guide him in the right direction. 

It’s not just older adults who can be put at a disadvantage when essential services go digital. This transition can present problems for people with disabilities as well.

Earlier this year, we featured research from the Urban Institute that found areas of the country with the highest rates of people claiming disability insurance are also lagging in high-speed internet access. That finding is true not just in rural counties where we know broadband infrastructure is spotty, but also in nonrural and urban areas with higher rates of disability as well.

And to that point about designing technology with older adults in mind, last year we spoke to Keren Etkin, gerontologist and founder of the Gerentechnologist website. She said there’s currently a boom in tech that serves older adults as the massive baby boomer generation ages, providing a big market incentive to take that demographic seriously.

Correction (June 21, 2023): An earlier photo caption for this story misspelled Nicshel Samedi’s name.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer