Canadians are living longer, healthier lives, resulting in a rapidly growing population of older adults. It is projected that the number of adults aged 65 and over in Canada will grow by 68% over the next two decades (1). One way to support the quality of life of this growing demographic is through technology. Assistive technologies (AT) such as blood pressure monitors (2), wheelchairs (3), and fall detectors (4) can promote the physical health of older adults. Social robots, AT that can interact with users (Figure 1), can assist older adults by improving mood (5), decreasing blood pressure (6), and reducing the need for analgesic and behavioural medication (7). Everyday information and communication technologies (EICT) – including mobile phones, computers, and email services – allow for regular communication with social contacts (3) and the ability to look up health information (8). Telemedicine provides a unique healthcare solution for older adults who face barriers to in-person care such as isolation, severe illness, and functional challenges (9).
Figure 1 – Social robots such as MiRo-E can interact with users. Adapted from MiRo-E University Research
Despite the known benefits of these technologies, there is a wide range of barriers to technology adoption by older adults. Such barriers include privacy concerns (10), inappropriate device design (11), and a lack of familiarity with technology (12). Another barrier is stigma around the use of technologies by older adults (5,10,13). Negative stereotypes of old age include increased dependency, disability, and disconnection from society (13,14). Furthermore, within technology research, ageing is often regarded as a ‘problem’ that technology may address (15). In this piece, I will summarize the literature on stigma around technology use by older adults and how we might address this issue.
Older adults often associate AT with negative stereotypes about ageing. For example, some older adults have stated that they are not ‘disabled’ or ‘old’ enough to require AT (16). In one research study, older adults who stated that they did not need AT recommended these devices for people who experience isolation, dependency, and disability (17). Some older adults feel that adopting AT signifies a loss of independence (4), and others experience feelings of embarrassment and incompetency when using AT (12). Furthermore, some older adults have expressed preference for items that are not necessarily ‘assistive’ or ‘medical’ in nature, such as an umbrella in place of a walking stick (2), a smartwatch with assistive features (4), or a shopping cart in place of a walker (16). On the other hand, EICT such as smartphones and computers are often regarded by older adults as a way to keep up with society, and thus older adults associate non-use of these technologies with negative ageing stereotypes (13). However, when learning to use EICT, many older adults experience embarrassment, anxiety, or fear of making mistakes (2,18). Some have reported feeling ‘older’ after encountering vision and haptic-related challenges while using EICT (13). Altogether, the literature shows that technologies often remind older adults of negative aspects of ageing. As a result, older adults are less likely to adopt these technologies.
Non-use of the technologies described above raises several issues, including a key neuroethical problem: decreased access to mental health benefits. For example, several online services that can improve mental health – such as telemedicine and tele-counselling services – are accessed through technologies such as smartphones and computers. Research has shown that interacting with social robot technologies can improve mood (5), and technologies such as smartphones allow people to stay in touch with one another (3), especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic where in-person contact is restricted. These are just a few mental health benefits that older adults who limit their use of technologies have reduced access to. As a result, there is a need to address key barriers to technology adoption, such as stigma.
One of the most important things we can do to address issues of stigma and non-use is to engage end-users in the process of device development. Older adults are often not consulted when technologies are being developed for them, leading to devices that are often misaligned with their needs and priorities (19). A study by Federici et al. found that the most common reason for device abandonment was an inappropriate device design (11). Incorporating ideas and feedback from older adults about device design, features, applications, affective considerations, and ethical concerns into the creation and implementation of technologies will likely result in devices that this population is more comfortable using.
Bio: Jaya Kailley is an Undergraduate Research Assistant under the supervision of Dr. Julie Robillard in the NEST Lab, and she is pursuing an Integrated Sciences degree in Behavioural Neuroscience and Physiology at the University of British Columbia. She currently supports research projects that aim to include end-users in the process of social robot development. Outside of work, Jaya enjoys playing the piano, reading, and spending time with her family and friends.
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