Computers Use and the Elderly
Written for the Washington Apple Pi Journal
by Phil Shapiro
Last month a friend of mine in the Washington Apple Pi user group asked me if I knew of any research being done in the field of computer use and the elderly. His persistently friendly questions piqued my interest to track down any articles or books that might have been published in this field.
I love a good information hunt. A juicy research challenge can be a voyage of discovery - - - full of unexpected, interesting surprises. True to its nature, this research project turned up many an interesting surprise.
For starters, I went searching for the earliest article discussing the use of technology with the elderly. To my amazement the earliest article on this subject was written way back in 1973.
Writing in a visionary article titled, "Computers and Technology: Aiding Tomorrow's Aged," published in a periodical titled, "The Gerontologist," the authors of this article spell out the promise of technology use with the elderly - - - even before the first microcomputers appeared in our homes.
Co-written by a psychiatrist and a computer scientist, the article urges readers to consider how technological advances can be used to promote intellectual vigor and independence in the elderly.
After discussing the "intellectually stimulating" uses of computers with the elderly, the article concludes with a strong paragraph on the economic benefits of getting the elderly involved as active users of technology:
"The powerless and helpless feeling of the aged is due not only to increasing infirmity but to society's failure to set up institutions and systems that would make it possible for the elderly to overcome the handicaps they have. [The] benefits to society as a whole would be enormous as there is no greater cost in our society than the cost of personal service. An elderly person with a maximum amount of ability to care for himself/herself would save society huge sums of money. The costs of institutionalization are already exorbitant and this will not change. Technological innovations in these areas will help the senior members of society to continue as viable participants in its processes." The Gerontologist, Autumn, 1973, pp. 323-25.
Bold thinking for 1973, for sure. And as directly relevant today as it was 22 years ago when those words were first written.
Moving forward in time, are there current publications covering computers use with the elderly? You bet. The publication I find most exciting is a scholarly quarterly named: "Computers in the Human Services." I tracked down back issues (1994 only) at Marymount University library, in Arlington, Virginia.
This publication covers a broad scope of computer uses in the human service professions. More than a few articles are written by people deeply passionate about computer uses of this sort. And their insights and experiences make for gripping reading.
Here are some sample titles of recent articles: "Evaluation of Computer Games' Impact Upon Cognitively Impaired Frail Elderly," "Memory for Goblins: A Computer Game for Assessing and Training Working Memory Skill," "Computer Games for the Frail Elderly," and more generally, "Therapeutic Applications of Commercially Available Computer Software," "Experiences Using a PC in Play Therapy With Children," and, "Computer Games and Simulations as Tools to Reach and Engage Adolescents in Health Promotion Activities."
For those who might be interested, here is subscription info for Computers in Human Services:
$35/yr. individuals (paid by personal check)
$90/yr. institutions (examples: corporation, departments, institutes,
social & health service agencies/hospitals
$125/yr. libraries and subscription agencies
The Haworth Press Inc., 10 Alice Street, Binghamton, NY 13904-1580, USA. 1-800-3-HAWORTH
Another publication that gives good coverage to technology use with the elderly is, "Educational Gerontologist." Here are some passages from a 1983 article, "Microcomputers and the Elderly: New Directions for Self-Sufficiency and Life-Long Learning," written by James Hoot and Bert Hayslip, Jr.
The thrust of this article is that microcomputer manufacturers have done very little to target older persons as prospective computer users. Sample passage: "Why is it, then, that older persons who could capitalize on a lifetime of experience in developing new computer skills are not actively sought as educational computer users? Moreover, there is much evidence in the gerontological literature to suggest that older adults are in fact both interested in and capable of continued learning.... Computers have a number of features which make them particularly conducive to use by older adults.... Presumably, mastering such skills and using them on an everyday basis would promote a sense of self-efficacy in the aged user and less dependence on others.... Never before in our history has so much potential for individualized lifelong learning been available to senior citizens.... To date, little attention in the media has been devoted to exploration of these mind tools as vehicles for improving the lives of older persons."
Here are citations to two other articles l found in Educational Gerontology: "Computer Interaction: Effect on Attitudes and Performance in Older Adults," "Computer Applications in Gerontological Research: Implications for Research Training." This publication is published by Taylor and Francis, 190 Frost Rd., Suite 101, Bristol, PA 19007-1598. Phone: 1-800-821-8312. It's kind of expensive for individuals to subscribe to, but you can find copies of this publication at several university libraries in the metropolitan area.
Technology Helps Foster Independence
Perhaps the most vital aspect of the use of technology with the aged is that it fosters greater independence. One article I came across discussed the psychologically empowering effect of being able to use a word processor. Here's a short snippet from that article:
"The ability to communicate and store information in writing is an important functional skill for everyday living. Among the elderly, written communication may be an important means by which loneliness caused by geographic mobility of family and friends could be diminished. Also, the ability to prepare and maintain written personal records (i.e. finances) may be a crucial aspect of actual or perceived independence. Conversely, impaired writing may lead to a sense of dependency and decreased self-worth."
Computer User Group Support
Computer user groups stand in an excellent position to lend assistance to projects involving computer use and the elderly. Within Washington Apple Pi there are several people who have been involved in interesting projects. Al Marcovitz, the computer coordinator at Maret School, in the District of Columbia, has set up a project where seniors from Iona Senior Services can learn about computers at Maret's (pronounced "Mahray") Macintosh computer lab. Seniors, paired with students, explore and enjoy various programs on the Mac. Al's project has had press coverage in the Washington Post, and has garnered considerable interest by those interested in "inter-generational computing projects."
Another noted "seniors computing" project involved longtime WAP members Bernie and Paula Benson. Back in 1981 Bernie and Paula volunteered to help the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington (in Rockville) use Apple II computers with the home's elderly residents. The Bensons modified existing Apple II public domain programs so that they were slower and more suited for use by older computer users. The programs they modified were Little Brick Out, Ribbet, Country Driver, and Hangman.
The outcome of Bernie and Paula's work can be found in the article, "Computer Games for the Frail Elderly," Computers in Human Services, Vol. II, No 1/2, pp. 229-234, 1994. This article by Shulamith Weisman is a reprint of a 1983 article that appeared in The Gerontologist.
How You Can Help
The initiatives by Al Marcovitz and the Benson family show that great things can happen if people take action to make them happen. How can you yourself get involved in similar projects? Post your interests (and skills) on the Volunteer Board of the TCS, the club's electronic bulletin board. If you don't have time to volunteer yourself, you can still take an active role in promoting the activities of those who do have time to share. You can do so by checking the volunteer board regularly, printing out the listed messages of people offering to volunteer, and then passing out those printed messages to people in your community who are currently working on (or are interested in working on) projects involving seniors and computing.
Another way of supporting the emerging field of "seniors and computing" is to get your local library to subscribe to the publication Computers in Human Services (and to subscribe personally, if you have a personal interest in the subject). By subscribing to this publication, you can affirm the values that the publisher has shown in establishing a publication on this topic.
Resources on the Internet
In researching this article I spent some time roaming the Internet to uncover whatever might have been written on this topic. One web page of particular interest is the personal web page of Dick Schoech, the editor of Computers in Human Services publication. I would recommend this web page as a good starting point for anyone interested in this subject. The page can be found at: http://www.uta.edu/cussn/cussn.html
Other notable web pages covering seniors computing topics (especially from the angle of connecting seniors online) are:
Seniors Computer Information Project Cyberpals:
Seniors On-Line: http://www.seniorsnet.com
Academic Fields Related to Seniors Computing Concerns
It appears that the field of academic interest most closely aligned with "seniors computing" concerns is the field of social work. "Neurology" and "cognitive rehabilitation" appear to be two other fields that explore issues related to seniors computing issues. Perhaps Oliver Sacks, the celebrated author of "Awakenings," might devote his attention to seniors computing topics at some time. The field needs a stirring book to help galvanize public interest in the subject.
The field of technology use with the elderly has barely begun to be explored. While the current literature on the subject is exciting and full of promise, the sum total of recent articles on the subject can be counted on your fingers.
My sense is that within a few years there is bound to evolve several subdivisions within the larger field of computer use and the elderly. You'll see fields emerge along the lines of: Seniors online, use of computers to develop and strengthen memory skills, use of computers for the writing and sharing of memoirs, intergenerational computing projects (teaming seniors with school aged students), use of computers to assess cognitive functions, etc.
It seems to me that many older adults may be receptive to using technology if introduced to it in a comfortable environment. If introduced in the right way, technology can become a major hobby and interest in the lives of the elderly.
As for the therapeutic uses of computers, it stands to reason that the intellectual declines which are part of the natural process of aging could very well be slowed (and sometimes counteracted) by getting the elderly involved as active users of technology. A game as simple as Tetris, for instance, can engage the mind in an amusing problem solving exercise.
The same enjoyable pleasures that occur when any of us master a new computer skill can have therapeutic value to both young and old. When you learn something new on the computer the result is a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that invariably creates a feeling of well-being. The human mind can sense its own growth, and feels emboldened when that growth occurs on a regular basis.
Someday soon computer companies and the media will begin to recognize how valuable a contribution technology can have in the lives of the elderly. Until then, it's up to you and me to spread the word.
[The author works as an educational computing consultant, software designer, and freelance writer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
He previously wrote about the use of computers in the human services in an article titled, "How Apple II Computers Are Being Used for Cognitive Therapy," in the October, 1992, issue of the Washington Apple Pi Journal. This article describes how computers are being used with psychiatric patients at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, in Washington DC. A copy of this earlier article can be found on the Miscellaneous Files board on the TCS, the club's electronic bulletin board.
This current article can be retrieved in electronic form from the author's home page.]
Brown, D.T. (1984). "Automated assessment systems in schools and clinical psychology: Present status and future directions," School Psychology Review, 13(4), 455-460.
Johnson, J.H., & Johnson, K.N. (1981). "Psychological considerations related to the development of computerized testing stations," Behavior Research Methods and Instrumentation, 13(4), 421-424.
Hirdes, John P., "The prevalence of grasping disorders and the use of microcomputers as adaptive writing aids among older adults," International Journal of Aging and Technology, v.5, no. 1, Human Sciences Press, Inc., 1992.
Furlong, Mary S. (1989). "Crafting an electronic community: The SeniorNet story," International Journal of Technology and Aging, 2(2), 125-134.
Hahm, W., and T. Bikson, (1989). "Retirees using e-mail and networked computers," International Journal of Technology and Aging, 2(2), 113-123.
Kerschner, P.A. & K. H. Chelsvig. (1984). "The aged user and technology," in Dunkle, Ruth E., Haug Marie R., Rosenberg M. (eds) Communications Technology and the Elderly: Issues and Forecasts. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 135-144.
McGuire, F.A., ed. (1986). Computer Technology and the Aged: Implications and Applications for Activity Programs. New York: Haworth Press.
Temple, L.L., & M. Gavillet. (1990). "The development of computer confidence in seniors: An assessment of changes in computer anxiety and computer literacy," Activities, Adaptation, and Aging. 14(3), 63-76.
Brickfield, C.F. (1984), "Attitudes and perceptions of older people toward technology," in P.K. Robinson & J.E. Birren (eds), Aging and Technological Advances, New York, Plenum Press, 31-38.
Zandri, E. & Charness, N. (1989). "Training older and young adults to use software," Educational Gerontology, 15, 615-631.
SeniorNet sidebar article
SeniorNet is an acclaimed ongoing project that uses online communications to connect seniors around the world. Here is summary information about SeniorNet, captured from their own online literature:
"What is SeniorNet?
SeniorNet grew out of a research project begun in 1986 by Mary Furlong, Ed.D., Professor of Education at the University of San Francisco, to determine if computers and telecommunication could enhance the lives of older adults. Now a non-profit organization based in San Francisco, SeniorNet receives its support from foundations, corporate sponsors and individual members.
SeniorNet is composed of SeniorNet Learning Centers (in almost every state), as well as SeniorNet Online (which makes its home on America Online and the Microsoft Network). The learning centers are a place where seniors can go to learn basic computer skills. The organization also has an annual conference and a quarterly newsletter, SeniorNet Newsline, which includes articles about various SeniorNet projects."
SeniorNet National Office
1 Kearny St.
San Francisco, CA 94108
America Online: 1-800-827-6364
Washington DC area SeniorNet learning centers
(sponsored by the Jewish Council on Aging)
Mazza Gallerie (at Friendship Heights subway stop)
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