Thinking Tech

iPad opens digital doors for the elderly

iPad opens digital doors for the elderly

Posting in Education

Apple is missing out by not paying attention to the elderly, but the iPad presents the perfect opportunity to change that.

What would happen if Apple seeded assisted-living homes with iPads? I believe such a measure would help bridge the gulf between the elderly and technology.

If you hung out at an Apple Store Saturday, you probably did not see many north of seventy eying Apple's iPad. That's because because there's a digital divide that doesn't get much attention. It's escaped Apple's eye, too.

While Baby Boomers (me) enter their later years with iPads under their arms and Blackberries in their pocket, there's still a generation of elderly technology is leaving behind. Says a story from this morning's Boston Globe:

"Older people are caught in a very big transition,’’ said Lisa Berkman, a Harvard School of Public Health Professor who specializes in aging. “There is an enormous disparity and comfort in the technical area. It’s like the digital divide. Education and socioeconomic status play a role. Some haven’t learned the new skills. They have 70 years of a different life experience."

Of course, computer and Internet usage among the elderly varies. My high school English teacher mother who died in 2003 would have nothing to do with them even though her son's (me) life work was following personal computers as a journalist. Yet, her brother, an engineer,  who in good health turns 86 this year embraced notebook PCs a dozen years ago.

credit: eldergadget.com

It's hit or miss and a lot depends on health - can they see, hear, type, touch or learn well enough to use a computer or gadget?

There are initiatives to ease the elderly's introduction to the Internet such as the COMPANIONS Project in the UK. It posits the idea of the device getting to know the user.

"COMPANIONS aims to change the way we think about the relationships of people to computers and the Internet by developing a virtual conversational 'Companion'. This will be an agent or 'presence' that stays with the user for long periods of time, developing a relationship and 'knowing' its owners preferences and wishes. It will communicate with the user primarily by using and understanding speech."

All well and good, but that's pie in the sky for now.

Back to the present and the iPad. Many are asking if it is truly a game changer. Does it redefine Internet interaction, books, mobility and ease of use? I'll leave those questions for other posts, but if Apple dropped iPads into the laps of the elderly, I'd wager many would get hooked.

Even if the iPad is an overgrown iPhone, let's face it, the latter was too small most elderly to understand and use. A mobile phone is for someone on the go and many elderly are quite settled. But the iPad is big enough yet light enough for them to hold in their lap. The touch screen is ideal. Indeed, Eldergadget.com's First Look gives the iPad a thumbs up:

"As far as usability goes, the iPad’s bright touch screen is easy for any user to pick up and start playing with immediately. Response time is quick and efficient which will please most users. However, some concerns have arisen about the usability of the on-screen keyboard which can be an awkward experience. Physically, the iPad is quite light, weighing around 1.5 lbs, which should not trouble most aging adults."

(Forget the keyboard. That's not what the iPad is about.)

Most assuredly, some would put the iPad aside. But others would be introduced to a digital world that would reconnect them to the mainstream, open up new vistas and mitigate the loneliness that invariably comes with the terrritory. My beloved uncle always said "getting old isn't for sissies."

I nosed around the web for programs Apple might have for the elderly and surprisingly found nothing. It's ok for Apple to have those hip TV ads with rockin' music to promote the iPad to Gen whatevers, but it's missing out on a potentially vibrant market by passing on the elderly. The iPad is a huge opportunity there.

With his recent liver transplant, Apple CEO Steve Jobs had a serious brush with his own mortality. He also turned 55 in February, which means he's been on AARP's marketing hit list for more than five years. I presume that to mean he understands aging quite well.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure