The generation that tech forgot

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter

  • Published
My mum using a tabletImage source, Jane Wakefield
Image caption,
My mother test-drives an iPad as she decides which tablet will work best for her

These days there is no shortage of technology designed for the older generation - from hearing aids that use GPS data to work out where the wearer is located and adjust volume accordingly, to Toyota robots that can carry the elderly around, and wireless sensors on mats that can alert relatives if someone stops moving around the house.

But do older people want any of this when many have not got to grips with the more basic technology most of the younger generation take for granted?

Image source, Other
Image caption,
Do older people want robot companions?

Ian Hosking, an expert in design for the elderly at the University of Cambridge's engineering design centre, believes we need to get the basics right first.

"There are some very tech-savvy older people around, but there is clearly a large cohort of people who feel excluded by technology. They find it a bit impenetrable," he says.

I would probably include my mother in that latter category.

She is in her 80s and has made valiant efforts to get to grips with a wide range of technology, from a creaking hand-me-down computer to a Kindle and online shopping.

Now, she wants to buy a tablet but is worried that she will not know how to use it.

She is not alone - according to the US Pew Internet research centre, 77% of older people would need someone to help walk them through the process of setting up a new device.

Image source, Breezie
Image caption,
Breezie is a normal tablet with a simplified interface

Aimed specifically at the older generation, Breezie offers a simplified interface for a standard Samsung Galaxy tablet.

It can be customised to make sure it has the settings and apps the customer wants, rather than a bunch of preset ones they will never use.

And the ones they do have are made easy to use - so, for example, someone wanting to use Skype simply has to tap on a friend's picture in the address book.

Company founder Jeh Kazimi told BBC News Breezie had been inspired by his own mother.

"I watched her trying to navigate the internet and saw that she found it intimidating and complicated," he says.

"I couldn't find anything on the market that could make the internet work for her, so I created it myself."

"Our goal was to design software that makes the online environment considerably more accessible for people with little or no technological nous and to do so without patronising or limiting them."

Users can give a trusted relative or friend the ability to sign-in remotely, set-up accounts and add contacts, via Breezie's support service.

Last year it teamed up with Age UK to launch the tablet, which costs £299 with the Breezie platform pre-installed.

Touching problem

Image source, Thinkstock

It is easy to assume that older people will find a gadget as simple to use as you do.

As an iPad user, I saw no reason my mother could not get to grips with it - but, actually, it is not as simple as that.

The response time for icons on an Apple screen is 0.7 seconds, but the over-65s have a response time of about one second.

Using touchscreens may come naturally enough to a toddler but not necessarily for an older person - the nerves in the finger become less sensitive with age, meaning older people may "touch" far more heavily.

And tests suggest that if an older person has a slight tremor, it can be registered on a device as a swipe rather than a touch.

"It is these subtle issues that erode confidence and cause confusion," says Chris Bignell, a spokesman for Emporia Telecom, which has designed a smartphone specifically for older people.

Image source, Emporia
Image caption,
The Emporia phone has a detachable keyboard

Its phone comes with an app that offers tutorials for people to practise using a touchscreen.

It also has a custom-built detachable keypad that flips over the phone, for those who still want buttons.

Increasingly, tech firms, including a glut of Chinese manufacturers, are developing hardware with age and disability in mind.

It might mean larger buttons, extra-loud speakers, hearing-aid compatibility or longer battery life.

Some - such as Age UK's OwnFone - offer a completely stripped-back mobile that only sends and receives calls - while others aim to address specific needs.

The Doro PhoneEasy has large print and big buttons, while the Binatone Speakeasy comes with a built-in panic button.

But to many older people, these handsets can seem unnecessarily old-fashioned and somewhat patronising, according to Prof Hosking.

"They don't deal holistically with the problems of ageing, because often older people have multiple impairments," he says.

With a rising elderly population, the technology industry cannot afford to ignore the issue.

It is estimated that, by 2030, 19% of the US population will be over 65 - roughly the same proportion that currently own iPhones.

And by 2050, there will be one retired person for every two that are in work.

Apple is looking to address this - but not with new hardware.

In a joint venture with IBM, it announced last month it would design "iPad apps" that would be "very easy to use for seniors".

Aimed at the Japanese market, the apps will help connect millions of older people with healthcare services.

"It assumes that its product is inherently usable," says Mr Hosking.

Technology with the human touch

Image source, Speaking Exchange
Image caption,
Speaking Exchange allows older people to share their knowledge of English and make friends

The Speaking Exchange is a US initiative that connects retired people living in care homes with students learning English in Brazil, via Skype.

A YouTube video of the service in action shows the older people clearly look forward to the chats, the Brazilian youngsters improve their English and both have developed strong bonds.

The UK offers a similar service - Cloud Grannies - which puts retired people in touch with children in India.

In the end, my mother decided to buy herself an iPad.

For years, my suggestion that my mother should get a tablet has fallen on deaf ears.

Then, her trusty old PC broke, a friend sang the praises of her own tablet, and the next thing I know, she is Facetiming me.

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