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Can we talk about aging? Yes, we have to. Let’s start by admitting that we are all aging. According to the 2010 census, more than thirteen percent of us in the United States are 65 and older. This means that our communities increasingly include many older adults. Here we discuss some of the new findings regarding older adults and web 2.0 communications and the implications for public administration.
Since 2000, the number of Americans age 65 or older has increased by 15% and demographers expect that this trend will continue throughout the 21st century. The expansion of the 65 and older age group is largely the result of the aging of the baby boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964). Throughout the current decade the number of Americans age 65 and older is projected to grow from 40 million in 2010 to 54 million in 2020. By 2030 nearly 20%, one in five, U.S. residents will be 65 or older. The US Census Bureau projects that in 2050 that 88.5 million Americans will be aged 65 and older, more than double the population in 2010 (To put this into perspective, by the mid-2050s the characters of television’s Girls will be women of a certain age over 65 ).
We know that if all goes well, aging means that younger people naturally become older adults. However, we often imagine that they simply pop into existence from nowhere. This is a not a surprising perspective. Researchers have consistently noted that in the U.S. older adults are largely a) invisible and b) negatively portrayed in media including television and advertising. Lack of representation in media (observe any prime-time television program) obscures not only the presence of older adults but also the diversity and ability of this population. In fact, older adults reflect the growing cultural, racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. population.
Older Adults and Technology
There are few surveys of internet use among older adults. The Pew Internet and Family Life Project has recently published the results of several surveys of older adults’ internet use and access. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in collaboration with its partner organizations has also examined how older adults and caregivers use and access the Internet. The lack of research may in part reflect stereotypes about older adults’ ability to use technology. Stereotypes about older adults and technology are pervasive. Even older adults adopt them believing that they are ‘too old’ to use technology. Older adults are indeed less likely than other age cohorts to use internet-accessing technology. This is one aspect of the ‘digital divide’ that exists across generations and socioeconomic groups. However, there is extraordinary variability among older adults use of technology. Many embrace technology, while others have little interest. Like most of people, the majority of older adults are somewhere in between, learning what they need about computer technology to effectively communicate and function in an increasingly digital world.
While we often think of the aging population as being less technologically competent than younger adults, in fact an ever-increasing number of older adults are active participants accessing the Internet and are engaged in web 2.0 based communication. A few years ago, older adults were among the least likely members of the American population to access the Internet. However, Pew Internet (June 2012) reports that as of 2011 for the first time more than half of adults over the age of 50 regularly accessed the internet. Older adult users are among the fastest growing group of new Internet users. Since Internet use is already high among younger age cohorts, and people do not tend to stop using the Internet on their 65th birthday, we should expect that Internet use will continue to increase among older adults.
While Internet use is increasing among people age 65 and older it declines precipitously among those ages 75 or older. Lower levels of use among the oldest of older adults may reflect a belief that the Internet is not necessary for them. Social scientists however suspect that this attitude may reflect lack of skills or competence in using the Internet. Researchers have noticed that when people 75 and older are given training and appropriate support, they increase their use of the Internet.
According to a 2010 AARP report, when older adults access the Internet it is typically through use of a desktop computer or laptop. Cellular phone ownership is increasing among older adults. However, Pew Internet reports that older adults are less likely than other age groups to own other types of mobile devices such as smartphones, e-readers and tablets. Limited adoptions of mobile devices by older adults may reflect interface designs that are not well suited to normal age-related changes in vision and dexterity.
Pew Internet (June 2012) reports that once older adults begin using the Internet they continue to do so regularly spending nearly as much time using web 2.0 applications such as Facebook at nearly the same rate as younger people. An earlier Pew Internet (March 2010) report found that more than a quarter (26%) of people ages 65 and older used of social networking in 2009. Online older adults use social media to stay connected though they are more likely to use these web 2.0 functions to keep up with family rather than friends. Though online older adults are growing increasingly comfortable with web 2.0, email remains the dominant Internet communications medium for older adults.
When older adults go online they are likely to use the Internet to access news or research health-related information. Chronic illness disproportionately affects older adults. Overall, while people living with chronic illnesses are less likely to go online, those who do are likely to seek support and information regarding their condition online through blogs and online discussion groups.
Caregiving, Health and Soon-to-be Older Adults
Through the middle of the century the changing age structure of the population is expected to have its most significant impact on health and health care. With these change we should continue to see an increase in the number of Americans who are caregivers. In 2009 more than 42 million Americans provided care to another adult. Caregivers are more likely to be adults ages 50-64 (in the age group next door to older adults), female and have at least one child of their own. Currently about 30% of Americans provide care for a loved one, typically an older adult parent or spouse. This number is likely to increase through the coming decades as the baby boomers become septuagenarians by the mid-2030s.
Pew Internet (July 2012) found that eight in ten caregivers accessed the Internet. Caregivers with Internet access were more likely to research health information, spend time looking up health information for others and use social media to share health experiences than other internet users. A 2009 AARP survey found that more than half of caregivers used the internet in the past year to find caregiving information.
Although providing care can be stressful for caregivers, until recently few used the Internet to look for support. The growth of social media appears to be changing this. Pew reports that 44% of caregivers had read someone else’s personal health story online. There are a number of Internet sites that offer information to the caregiver. AARP has a section of its site dedicated to caregivers. The Visiting Nurse Service of New York and the Family Caregiver Alliance also have excellent tips on social media for caregivers that can be incorporated into local aging and public health programs.
What Does This Mean for Public Administrators?
For health administrators, it means taking particular care to reach out to this segment of the population. For technology managers, it means being sure that your website is accommodating for many of the issues facing adults as we age. Federal laws were amended in 1998 to require federal governments to include electronic and technology access in order to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Many of the suggestions identified for meeting the needs of the disabled are appropriate for accommodations that can offset physical difficulties associated with aging. Another excellent resource in accommodating websites can be found at Bobby Approved. States and local governments are just as interested in reaching their aging adult populations and have much to contribute to this dialogue. Therefore, we’ve assembled a few practical suggestions to guide you as you consider the accessibility of your technology for aging adults and those who care for them. Public administrators can:
The 21st century is here and as responsible public servants, we’ve got to learn to meet the needs of the 21st century aging adult. We’ve identified a few ways to engage technology and the older adults in our communities. We’d love to hear your ideas.
Authors: Christopher J. Godfrey, Ph.D. Director, Web 2.0 Interdisciplinary Informatics Institute Department of Psychology, Pace University; Maudry-Beverley, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Medgar Evers College/CUNY; Hillary J. Knepper, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Pace University; Annie Chai, Camila Bernal, and Danica Spence Pace University Research Assistants.
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