When Alexis Kuerbis applied for a grant to study older adults and text messaging, she was shocked by reviewers’ reactions.
“Basically, I ran into a bunch of ageist and out-of-date attitudes,” said Kuerbis, a professor of social work at Hunter College. “They were saying ‘Older adults don’t use mobile phones. You’re never going to get them to engage in any technology.’”
But that wasn’t Kuerbis’s experience. At the time, she was participating in a study that involved using text messaging as an intervention for problem drinking, and older adults were among the study participants. “I was seeing people who were older and very tech-savvy, and able to engage in an intense assessment via smartphone,” she said.
What the science says
According to the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of Americans over age 65 own a cell phone. AARP research found that 86 percent of Americans over age 50 communicate with text messaging. For those ages 50-69, texting has actually surpassed email as their preferred method of communication.
“We think of texting as a millennial thing, but people of all ages engage in it,” said Aaron Hagedorn, a gerontology professor at USC and widely-respected expert on older populations. “Every person is the same, regardless of age: We all want to engage socially.”
“In general, older adults are pretty open to using technology,” said William Chopik, a psychology professor at Michigan State University. In 2016, Chopik studied about 600 older adults with a median age of 68 to find out more about their use of social technologies like SMS messaging, emails, video conferencing, and Facebook.
The seniors in the study didn’t just have positive feelings toward the social technologies used; they were positively impacted by them. “It makes them feel less lonely, and, as a result, makes them happier and healthier,” Chopik explained.
“In every study I’ve ever seen about technology being applied to older adults and seniors for healthcare, across the board, they tend to like it. Separately, they also tend to get excited about it, because it feels fun and new,” said Kuerbis.
An outmoded perception
But we’ve all heard the stereotype: Older people and technology don’t mix. Where does it come from?
For one thing, Kuerbis says, it actually was true a generation ago, when older generations went their entire professional lives without using digital technology. Times have changed. “If you think about it, the generations that have aged in the past 30 years aged at a time when the world was being forced to engage in technology in new ways,” she explained.
Kuerbis’s father, for example, began using computers for work in the 1980s, but his parents never did. “There just isn’t the same level of digital divide.”
In addition, Hagedorn said, non-seniors often think of old age in the most dramatic possible terms: “We tend to think about the most disabled older people, and people tend to think that the design that works for them needs to address the most extreme circumstances in terms of color or size or demands on dexterity.”
But that’s not an accurate picture. For one thing, when we talk about older adults, we’re actually talking about everyone over the age of 50. That’s a huge and highly diverse population—one that covers people at the height of their careers as well as those who have been retired for decades.
And even among true seniors—those 65 and older—technology use comes pretty naturally, Hagedorn said: “I would say that among the population of people 65 and up, 80 percent of them would have no problem using a standard app. Another 10 percent of them could handle it with some assistance from others or on a tablet. The ones who can’t manage it are in a real minority.”
Engaging older adults in texting
“Text messaging is the least invasive and the most accessible [technology] across age groups. It takes the least amount of effort for older adults to use,” Kuerbis explained.
That’s not to say that those older adults use texting in precisely the same way younger populations do. For one thing, Hagedorn said, it’s much better if there’s a human on the other end. Older adults are “very people oriented, not technology oriented,” he explained.
How to reassure them that there’s a real person on the other end? “Ask them to reply back,” Hagedorn suggested. “The engagement of having to reply is a stronger reminder and forms a relationship.”
When it comes to appointment reminders, more is better, Hagedorn said. A one-time reminder will be less effective for a senior population than two or three spread out over a few days.
And Kuerbis’s research shows that older adults have some clear preferences about message content: Single punctuation was better received than multiple punctuation marks; messages without emoticons tested better than messages with a smiley face; and older people preferred “you” statements to “we” statements.
Finally, Hagedorn’s research suggests that trying to replace in-person relationships with technology isn’t likely to work well. When he conducted research that involved providing telehealth counseling to older adults, literally 100% of them said they would have preferred an in-person appointment. By contrast, “young people like telehealth counseling better. They feel more comfortable in their own homes, and they may actually reveal more.”
Instead, technology is more likely to engage seniors “if it strengthens a relationship that’s important to them, particularly if it’s related to an in-person experience”—precisely like a doctor’s appointment.
And despite the stereotypes, “older adults have a lot of concerns about staying connected,” Chopik said. “Technology is one of the ways they can increase their communication with the outside world.” ♥
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Talya Meyers is WELL’s former Health Editor. Talya began her career in academia before transitioning to writing full time. She has written for Smithsonian Magazine online, BBC Future, Refinery29, and the Los Angeles Times, among other venues. She is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University.