Older Adults, Close Others & Technology

Older adults have varied relationships with technology. While there are stereotypes that older adults are not tech savvy, that stereotype often doesn’t hold true. Many older adults who retired over the past decade used technology in their work lives and are quite comfortable. Other older adults have embraced new technologies as ways to flourish as they age. And yes, there are some older adults who struggle.

My research focuses not on just the older adults who struggle with technology, but on all older adults, who may occasionally rely on close others to support them. Close others are family members, friends, neighbours or paid support workers who support older adults in various ways with various different activities. This relationship and the support provided is fluid and multi-dimensional. An older adult with some temporary mobility loss may rely on both a neighbour and a niece living nearby to help with groceries and transportation to doctors appointments, but then regains full independence. An older gentleman living in a retirement community without any close family nearby may rely on a social worker to help connect him to government services and a close friend to help him with banking tasks and financial management. An elderly couple who is not tech savvy may rely on their adult daughter to help them with banking tasks and eShopping.

The common denominator here is that the relationship is not always with a family member, and the relationships and tasks for which close others provide support vary over time. The research question I’m interested in is how well do critical technologies (online government services, online banking, online shopping, and online health services) support older adults and the close others who assist them? Do these online technologies explicitly acknowledge that there may be close others/caregivers helping older adults to use the technologies, or even using them on behalf of the older adults? What are the most ideal ways in which technologies could support these close others, while maintaining the privacy and security of the accounts of the older adults?

My work in this area began while I was at the University of North Carolina and working with colleagues at Wake Forest University. We studied older adults and barriers to usage of health system patient portals. We found that in numerous cases, older adults were giving their portal passwords to their close others so the close others could login and use patient portals on their behalf. We also found that 68% of hospitals we sampled in a national survey offered proxy accounts for caregivers, but 45% of hospital staff actually recommended patients share passwords with caregivers when patients want caregiver help with portals. This can lead to critical privacy and security breaches, as we know that many people reuse the same passwords across different systems.

Now that I am at the University of Manitoba, I am looking at the problem more broadly. I believe we need to look at this issue of acknowledging helpers more broadly. I’m focusing on helpers of older adults, but there are other groups that also may sometimes have helpers supporting them (such as people with disabilities, injuries or chronic illness, or immigrants with language barriers). If our technology systems don’t provide avenues for helpers to help, this is ultimately going to lead to the help happening through sharing of credentials and that is not good for anyone: the person being helped, the person helping, or the company or organization providing the service.