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The Elder Interview
David Prendergast Explores the Potential of Technologies to Revolutionise Later Life
David Prendergast is a social anthropologist based at Intel and author of ‘Aging and the Digital Life Course.’ This collection of essays was awarded 2016 CHOICE ‘Outstanding Academic Title’ by the American Library Association and described by the Huffington Post as ‘one of the two most fascinating books on aging in the 21st Century’. We talked to him about the potential of technologies to create new forms of community, support caregivers and revolutionise the way that later life is lived.
How did the book evolve?
I’ve been interested in the area of ageing since my Ph.D., which looked at the lives of older people in the context of rapid urbanisation in South Korea. I was working at Trinity College Dublin in 2005 when I was invited to help the technology company Intel set up a research centre around technologies and independent living in later life.
Alongside this, I was involved in a number of projects with the design teams at the research centre for six years, from looking at the experiences and expectations of ageing in different European countries, to transport, sleep, active retirement groups and projects on social isolation and loneliness.
In 2012, I was moving on to other projects when publishers Berghahn Books approached me about putting together a collection of essays around ageing. They felt it was a huge gap in the market, and they were right. I thought it would also be a good exercise to pull together many of those projects and teams I’d worked or come into contact with over the years, as well as fill in some gaps in my own knowledge.
Bringing people to artificially socialise is far less effective than bringing them together for a purpose.
What does it mean to age in the digital world of today – and tomorrow?
There are many different ways as to how you might answer that question. In the book, we try to approach it from the perspective of how people are using technology in areas such as social connection, mental and physical health and on the transitions that people go through in later life. I’ve always been interested not only in macro trends but how people and the ecosystems around them actually engage with a digital technology.
Digital advances can affect everything from the pragmatic, like working with more digital services to manage ageing challenges, through to new technologies coming online such as digital gaming. It’s interesting because you might assume that digital gaming is something that only younger people are involved with but actually a lot of people in retirement are getting involved in these massive online communities.
“We have to make sure we are building companionship care into the equation with technology, and not just replacing people with robots”
How do you understand the concept of ‘old age’ – and why?
We interviewed a lady in Cork during our research, and she took us through the technology in her house. We noticed she had a TV in her room, but that it wasn’t plugged in. We asked her why, and she said that she never used it. “That’s for when I get old,” she said – and she was 91 years old.
It is common to use the old line of retirement line of 65+ to determine ‘old age,’ but obviously, as the retirement age is going up, that’s going to change.
There are many ways to segment and think about older populations though; you can think of it regarding age brackets, frailty, or you can think about it in terms of abilities or what kinds of illnesses people have, for example. My own definition of older certainly changes the older I get! One strong theme that emerged repeatedly in our interviews is that regardless of age, people usually want to feel productive and useful to others.
Most people that we came into contact with in our research never really felt that they were old until something big happened in their life that seriously challenged their resiliency and self-perception, like a bad illness, fall or losing their spouse – or even retirement. A critical event can be a big transition point, and like any anthropologist, I am interested in boundaries and how things change there.
To purchase David’s book: Aging and the Digital Life Course, click here.
How can technology become more accessible for older people?
I believe that we have to design technologies that unfold, and that grows with the user. If you’re using a piece of technology for the first time, then we should make sure it’s simple and preferably use metaphors, familiar to the age cohort, within the design.
I once designed a social media platform called ‘Building Bridges’ for older adults who were socially lonely. In this online social network, we were trying to persuade them to pick up the phone or engage with peers. Many interventions look to bring an isolated older person out of their house into a social group for a few hours a week.
My team and I wanted to explore how technology could augment social engagement with such groups for the remainder of the week. To do so, we used modern platforms like Skype, but wrapped them in designs that harked back to accustomed concepts, such as the telephone, a tea room with games that could be used day or night and TV and radio programmes several times a day where the viewer could see who else was watching and join a conversation afterwards.
Sometimes we brought in live expert speakers to talk about issues such as health, history or current affairs. By far the most popular programme was a talk on dementia. The key point though is that bringing people to artificially socialise is far less effective than bringing them together for a purpose. This is why groups such as Men in Sheds where older men come together to pursue collective projects such as woodwork or restoring old bicycles for local schools, are so successful.
A second important design principle is not giving people too many confusing options at the beginning. Carefully and sensitively design the initial interactions with the technology, keep it straightforward and then gradually as a user’s capabilities grow and they get more practice, you can start bringing in additional features.
A third principle doesn’t design things in a way that stigmatises older people or encourages dependency – let’s also get away from the beige! Let’s make technology interesting and let’s make it fun for everyone, including those in later life.
How will older generations deal with technology in the future?
We’ll see generations who will now grow up with technology, and it will be second nature to them. For example, the 40-year-olds now will be in a better position than their parents, but then what about the technologies on the way that they won’t grow up with?
Things are moving so rapidly, and the next stages in technology are things like quantum computing and neuromorphic engineering. A lot of these will come into the mainstream over next 20 years, and it will be interesting to see if we will keep up.
There are things emerging now though that we will see having a big impact fairly soon – autonomous vehicles will be on the road commercially in the next few years, for example. That will change a lot about how we think about things, like how you drive and the idea of the private car.
Autonomous vehicles may not end up being privately owned cars, but possibly fleet managed cars, and that requires thinking about in terms of older people.
Driverless cars are likely to help transform the lives of many older adults who haven’t the ability to drive. Even in areas well-serviced by public transport, it can be a nightmare for many older people to get to the bus stop, carry bags, or sit down in time on a bus with a driver that rapidly accelerates.
Autonomous vehicles will act like taxis that you order, and they will come pick you up from your front door, probably very affordably, especially if you are willing to take a little longer and ‘ride share’ with others along the route. Much like when you get into a shuttle from an airport that goes to several hotels before dropping you off.
This will be a great service for many, but it also brings up questions we have to think through, such as how safe will people feel in cars and pooled transport without a driver? And what about older people who require ‘arm-to-arm care’?; that is a friendly helping hand in through the door and perhaps bringing in the heavy shopping.
There are lots of things to think about for this demographic as we’re designing these new technologies and the landscapes we situate them in. Sometimes you just need to look and build awareness around a need for rethinking solutions. For example, we found many pedestrian crossings are set too fast for the average walking pace of older adults, the escalating warnings of beeps and flashing lights, can cause rushing and occasionally falls.
What kind of tech will have the biggest impact on an ageing society?
Looking at it demographically, one of the big challenges with people living longer is dementia, and there is a chapter in the book by Arlene Astell from the University of Reading who does fantastic work on technologies for people in this area. Then there is the question about how technology can be used to support caregivers too because caregiver burnout can happen pretty quickly – especially when supporting someone in the later stages of dementia.
Often spousal and family caregivers become socially isolated and are not able to get out; that’s when they burn out, and that’s when people often go into homes. Supportive technology in those situations is an incredibly important issue to think about – especially when you consider there are approximately six million unpaid caregivers in the UK – who save the UK around £120bn a year in healthcare costs.
And that population of caregivers is going to shrink too – as the vast majority of carers are 55+, female, and they’re getting older. In another 20 years they are going need care themselves – and demographically there will be a far higher proportion of older to younger people, so fewer caregivers coming up behind them that can take that on.
We also hear a lot about ageing in place, and another key thing is that we give people options to stay at home for as long as possible. Nursing homes are expensive, and a lot of people don’t want to be in that situation, and if it is possible to keep people out of hospitals and living independently for as long as possible, then that can only be a good thing for the vast majority of people.
Digital Health technologies focused on things such as chronic disease management, falls prediction and detection, and care coordination can help with that, but we should be aware that homes can also become prisons. There are over a million older people who eat Christmas dinner by themselves in the UK each year – and we need to be thinking about how we design ‘ageing in the community’ not just within the bricks and mortar of the home.
In the bigger picture, we have to make sure we are building companionship care into the equation with technology and not just replacing people with robots.
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