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Aging With Technology: What Does That Button Do?
by Marjorie Dorfman

Technology... is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other. ~ C.P. Snow, 1971

Time flies even if you aren't having fun. For many of us it seems, we went to sleep last night as middle-aged and woke up this morning much older. The world and the times as Bob Dylan used to say, “are a changing.” That would be a good thing if it only everything wasn't happening so fast! Within the blink of an eye, things are born and become obsolete (not children, but everything else.)

Many older Americans have successfully managed to avoid the technology boom and plan to continue to do so even though avoidance is not a permanent solution to the problem. For this technologically- reluctant population, banking is done with live tellers, letters are written in long hand and phone conversations are only conduced between live voices on land-line phones.

Slowly but surely, technology is seeping into all aspects of life, pushing these stalwart holdouts into a frightening corner. Phone calls lead to automated menus, shopping can involve computerized gift registries and keeping in touch with relatives often involves e-mail and personal Web pages. Older adults face two distinct disadvantages: a lack of experience with technology, and the decline of cognitive and motor functions that can interfere with their ability to use technologies.

Technology plays both a negative and positive role in the lives of aging citizens. Typical “elder tech” products are limited in their options, as illustrated by the example of an oversized keypad meant to accommodate impaired vision. There's no tech at all involved in this product.

Baby boomers are not at the age to consider such offerings yet and for those that have arrived, this type of gadget might be construed as a slap in the aging face and a grim reminder of what that thief, the aging process, has stolen from them.

It's not that an oversized keypad isn't a good thing, to follow through with the same example. It's more the implication that gearing ads for such products to the boomer population is jumping the gun, for the fact that they may have reached retirement age doesn't mean they are nursing home material and incapacitated.

Most people learn about new technologies through co-workers or as part of a corporate system. If you are a stay-at-home, you are simply not exposed to that environment.

Ken Dychtwald, the chief executive of Age Wave, a research and consulting organization that focuses on population aging said: “What's developing is a digital divide. New technologies are largely oriented to people under the age of 50. If you are older than that, you have to muster the courage to ask your family how things work.”

The following represent some mainstream technologies that appeal to those 18 or 80. They function as aids for entertainment, activity, sources of information and communication. Familiarize yourself with them and decide which best suit your needs. They are all guaranteed to present technology in a flattering and helpful light.

Video game consoles
Consider those gaming systems that will get you out of your chair and moving about. Some of these include virtual dance competitions, exercise programs and sports simulators. Gaming systems offering these types of accessories include: Nintendo Wii, the Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 3.

The Xbox Kinect ($300) from Microsoft is the most advanced gaming system available, with built-in cameras and motion sensors that can see a player's body and its position. The Your Shape fitness program, which is available for $50 is amazing, for it monitors your movements to insure that you are doing the moves correctly.

Communication via Webcams
Videoconferencing comes as close to possible as person-to-person visits. Some computers have webcams built in; others will need an external one. The Logitech C310 model, sells for around $30, and it works very well for chats with friends and family.

In addition to the hardware, you will need to establish an account with Skype, Gmail, iChat, AIM or another service. They are available free of charge and you can talk to anyone who has an account on the same network.

Tablet or e-Reader
Apple's iPad (starting at $499) remains the best choice for a tablet. The intuitive interface is easy to use, and its wealth of apps makes it the perfect digital companion. The iPad's zooming feature turns any text whether from an e-book, web site or e-mail into large type within the span of seconds. Quite a bit cheaper is an e-book reader. Amazon's Kindle is the most popular and price start at $139. Its wireless Internet connection boasts: “always on, never pay for it.” And a user can download books within seconds from almost anywhere except maybe the bottom of the ocean.

You can also subscribe to Kindle versions of newspapers and magazines (and adjust type size as well). Furthermore, the Kindle weighs only half a pound, and you can store up to 3,500 books on it.

Apps, Apps and More Apps
Software can help you get organized and keep you productive. The application, Evernote, is a personal digital assistant that doubles as the world's greatest filing cabinet. This app allows you to copy and paste any online material into “notebooks.” There is both a free and premium version of this software, the latter offering some expanded features and no ads and going for an annual fee of $45.

The Dragon Dictation program from Nuance is available for Windows computers ($100) and Macs ($200), Dragon's voice-recognition technology accurately transcribes whatever you say. You can also execute voice commands for your computer and select words and lines to copy, delete or paste.

Streaming entertainment
A world of inexpensive video programming can be yours for $60 and a Roku box. When combined with a low monthly subscription rate to Netflix, you can access thousands of movies and TV shows with just the simple click of a remote. Other subscription services, like Amazon Instant Video and Hulu Plus, are also available.

For $99, AppleTV, also offers Netflix, and includes access to Apple's iTunes library of shows and films. It also features a more current selection. Unlike Netflix, iTunes is not a subscription service, but works on an à la carte basis, and while you cannot order oysters ala Rockefeller on the half shell, you can rent TV shows for 99 cents and movies for low prices.

Digital photo frames
Digital photo frames have been around for a while but the dynamic growth of technology, particularly in the field of wireless connectivity, has brought many changes to the original concept. Pandigital's Photo Mail digital photo frame, which is available for $180, is a simple dark rectangle surrounding an eight-inch display for photos captured from a camera's memory card, just like others of its ilk. What sets it apart is that this frame can receive new photos, wirelessly, from friends and family.

The Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE) has conducted basic and applied research to the issue of aging and technology. Their primary focus is on how aging influences technology use, which interfaces work best for older adults and what techniques for the use of technology are the most instructive. Researchers Sara Czaja, PhD, and Joseph Sharit, PhD, from Miami, Neil Charness, PhD, from Florida State and Wendy Rogers, PhD, and Arthur Fisk, PhD, from Georgia Tech, have all worked independently on these issues but have recently joined forces in the name of progress.

Working together eliminates the possibility of overlapping research. This group is collecting data that will become a massive database housed at the University of Miami, which serves as CREATE's coordinating center. This is a source of a wealth of information about correlations between aging-related cognitive and motor skills and technology use.

According to Dr. Neil Charness: “We are measuring many of the things that might impair or facilitate the use of technology by older adults, such as hardware and software interfaces, training and user characteristics.”

The goal is to eventually amass enough data to provide viable guidelines to industry for designing, testing and training people to use all kinds of technology-based systems, ranging from computers to medical devices to farm equipment. In fact, John Deere is supporting some of their research by helping to design farming equipment that is safe, effective and easy to use by an increasingly aged population of American farmers, 42% of which are over the age of 55.

There's no question that the strategy of avoiding technology has numbered days. Overcoming the different hurdles requires different approaches and diverse technological systems.

The future looks bright for closing the technological gap created by the digital divide. We can only hope that gap won't close so tightly as to not be open to new ideas.

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Copyright 2012