Feature

It's difficult to accomplish even mundane tasks these days without encountering some form of technology. 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.

But there's a generation of older Americans who have tried to avoid the technology boom--and in many cases succeeded. They still do their banking with live tellers, write letters in long hand and hang up the phone on anything but a live voice.

The problem is, that evasion strategy can't work forever. Technology is infiltrating all aspects of life, and eventually even the most stalwart individuals will need to learn the basics. All the while, older adults face two distinct disadvantages: They tend to have little experience with technology, and even the healthiest among them show declines in cognitive and motor function that can interfere with their ability to use technologies.

Overcoming those hurdles requires different technology systems. Determining what those systems should look like has become the focus of a team of psychologists and industrial engineers from the University of Miami, Florida State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Funded in large part by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), they've formed the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE) to conduct basic and applied research on the issue of aging and technology. They're investigating how aging influences technology use, which technology interfaces work best for older adults and what techniques work best to instruct older adults in technology use.

The researchers involved in CREATE--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 independently worked on issues related to aging and technology for years. They teamed up to make more progress working as a group. "It's an integrated effort attempting to answer a series of related questions about technology and aging," says University of Pittsburgh psychologist Richard Schultz, PhD, a member of CREATE's external advisory board.

What's more, the group is collecting data on a standardized core battery of tests that measure everything from demographics and technology use to cognition, perception and motor skills. The results are being pooled into a massive database housed at the University of Miami, which serves as CREATE's coordinating center. The database will provide a wealth of information about correlations between aging-related cognitive and motor skills and technology use, say the researchers involved in the project, who plan to eventually make the database available to other researchers interested in aging.

"We're 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," says Charness.

Adds CREATE advisory board member William Howell, PhD: "They're coming at this issue of technology and aging in what I think is a really sensible way. Each site is looking at a different set of performance or design issues, but they're doing it in a standardized way that allows them to compare and contrast their results. Besides, the data they're collecting will be a boon for other researchers interested in a comprehensive picture of what we old people look like."

Eventually, the researchers hope to have enough data to provide guidelines to industry for designing, testing and training people to use all kinds of technology-based systems, from computers to medical devices to farm equipment.

"We're looking at a broad range of technologies--from ATM machines to phone menu systems to computers--as well as a broad range of tasks," says Czaja, CREATE's principal investigator. "Teaming up means we can eliminate overlap in our research and provide recommendations that cover a larger range of devices."

They're already gaining the interest of industry. For example, John Deere is supporting some of their research to help it design farming equipment that is safe, effective and easy to use by an increasingly aged population of American farmers--42 percent are over age 55.

CREATE also has ties to IBM and other computer-related companies. Such links are a first step in getting their research noticed and, eventually, implemented, say the CREATE team, which is already working on a book aimed at technology designers. That's not something psychology researchers have typically excelled at, admits Dan Berch, PhD, the NIA program officer for CREATE, but he has high hopes for this project.

"Within CREATE you've got people with legs in both the basic and applied camps," says Berch. "And they're providing a framework to bring about the translation of their work into practice. If anyone can do it, these people surely have the right formula."

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.