The stereotype of the technology-phobic grandparent may be on its way out, as baby boomers enter their golden years adept at using the latest gadgets. But even people who are completely comfortable with technology face challenges as they grow older, their fingers get slower and their eyesight dims.
As director of the Human Factors and Aging Laboratory at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Wendy Rogers, PhD, is working to make technology designers aware of older adults' needs. She studies the cognitive and physical changes that come with age, and suggests ways that personal computers, robots and other technology might be adapted to better serve older adults.
Rogers spoke to the Monitor about her research.
What are some examples of the technological advances you're studying that might make it possible for older adults to live more independent lives?
On the Georgia Tech campus, we have an "Aware Home" that looks like an actual home environment. It allows us to test very early prototype versions of technologies, such as the Personal Robot 2, which is a human-size robot with very refined mobile manipulation capabilities. It can pick things up and move through the house. Right now, we're assessing older adults' reactions to having a robot deliver medications to them, and do tasks like turning light switches on and off or clearing items off a table.
When we asked older adults whether they would like a robot delivering their medication, they were very open to that idea. But then we asked, what about if the robot were actually deciding which medicine you should take at a particular point in time? Then they were more reticent. They were uncertain about how well the robots would do it, and they also just didn't understand how it could be done.
So, I think if we start moving toward deploying robots, one of the things we're learning is that it's going to be critical that people understand how the robots work, to build that trust into the robot interaction.
We're also studying home monitoring systems that can provide people with information about their own activities. With feedback on, for example, what they're eating on a daily basis, they might be better able to adjust their activities to be healthier or to better follow their doctors' recommendations. This work is in the early stages of integrating data from different sources, like motion sensors and actigraphs [activity sensors], and developing methods of displaying that information in a meaningful way to older adults and caregivers.
I'm particularly interested in trying to provide information to older adults that can help them understand their behaviors, such as their sleep patterns and how that may relate to arthritis pain.
What are some issues that designers need to take into account when developing technologies for older adults?
One major factor is that our abilities change as we get older. So, for example, there's more variability in one's motor control. There's less strength, so physical capabilities change. Our perceptual capabilities also change as we get older, making it more difficult to see certain font sizes or to discriminate certain colors, and also to hear certain sounds. There are also aspects of cognitive function that show age-related declines, for example working memory.
Can you give some examples of technology that's designed well for older adults?
Some websites are well-designed, with high contrast and reduced jargon and minimal distracting information. Other websites are notoriously poorly designed, where there's so much going on that it's going to be difficult for older adults to use them. My colleagues Drs. Sara Czaja and Joseph Sharit at the University of Miami found that the majority of older adults could not find the information they needed on medicare.gov, for example.
If you do design something to be easily used by older adults, it's likely to be more easily used by the general population, too. But younger adults can overcome some design flaws, whereas for some older adults it may be so disruptive that they end up not being successful [using the technology].
Do companies pay attention to these issues?
It's a mixture. But I think perhaps more companies are starting to as the demographics are changing. Part of our challenge as psychologists is to make sure that we're translating our knowledge into guidelines and principles that industry can use, because they're not going to read the psychology journals. We've written a book called "Designing for Older Adults" (2009) to provide principles, guidelines, best practices and so on directly targeted toward industry and government and other organizations.
One example from a company that we've been partnering with called BigScreenLive—they designed a computer interface specifically for older adults. So, instead of pulling up the Internet and getting too much information, it gives five basic functions, such as email, photos and games.
We're testing the efficacy of that system for older adults who live alone and didn't have computers before. We're comparing the relative benefits of having this computer system to a control group that gets the same information in paper form. We're midway through data collection, but we have anecdotal information that the people in the computer group just love it. It is easy to use and they are enjoying connecting with family and friends over email. I recently got word that one of them—who never used a computer until our study—is now volunteering to help create an email distribution list and is using Groupons.