Focus Technology to Serve Seniors
Focus Technology to Serve Seniors
WALTHAM, Mass.Information technology is playing a greater role than ever before in aiding older generations to stay informed, expand their professional skills and share health care information with others, but some fundamental issues involving ease of use and security keep many people from embracing new tools, experts said Monday.
At the Aging by Design conference being here held this week at Bentley College, a range of experts gathered to debate some of their most pressing concerns about the development of new technologies aimed at senior citizens and the burgeoning crop of retirement-age people on the front end of the so-called Baby Boomer generation.
Sponsored by the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), Aetna Inc., Fidelity Investments Inc. and IBM, the event examined many of the challenges facing consumers and businesses in building new products and services that better meet the needs of older users.
The common thread offered by many of the days speakers was that retirees and other older users are not as much challenged by a lack of technical know-how as they may be discouraged by devices and Web sites that fail to account for their changing needs.
Yet, from something as simple as a Web browser that enlarges text to account for damaged eyesight, to in-home monitoring systems that can notify medical personnel in case of emergency, the experts agreed that many technologies are being brought to market that can help seniors live, work and compute more easily.
The rapid advancement of the Baby Boomer set, and in a larger sense, the aging populations of many nations worldwide, will demand that technology providers begin examining their options for adjusting their products and services to meet those users demands, said Frances West, director of worldwide accessibility at IBM in Armonk, N.Y.
"We all know that this aging wave is coming at us and wonder if were ready," West said. "Information technology is not one size fits all and we need to understand that better if were going to encourage people to adopt our products on a wider scale."
West showed off some of the tools being developed by IBM to help older users and people with various kinds of disabilities, such as its Easy Web Browsing software.
The application, which currently works with the Mozilla Foundations open-source Firefox browser, allows users to customize the size and color of Web content, have text read aloud at different speeds by the computer, or assign sounds to the completion of various types of online tasks.
Another of IBMs creations, dubbed WebAdapt2Me, lets users enhance the readability of Web pages by reducing visual clutter and making browsers, computer mice and keyboards easier to use by decreasing their physical sensitivity.
By taking some of the technologies built within IBM to help hearing- or sight-impaired workers do their jobs, West said, she believes the company can have a significant impact on tools built for older people.
"Its more than just ease of use that needs to be addressed, there needs to be a design relationship that gives Web sites the ability to know users preferences and adjust for age-related issues," West said. "The aging issue will become a huge focus area, and it will take many people coming together to help solve it."
Another issue facing the aging population is the expanding career outlook, as social security requirements get pushed back and employers offer fewer guaranteed pensions.
Despite the availability and simple approach of some of the new tools, most experts agreed that too few companies are helping their older workers, who are increasingly eschewing the standard retirement age of 60, keep up with technological change.
According to Marian Stoltz-Loike, chief executive of New York-based SeniorThinking, a human resources firm focused on the "mature workforce," businesses must begin to devote more time and planning to helping older employees utilize technology, or risk losing some of their most experienced and vital workers.
While the reality of the rapidly changing digital workplace has actually made it easier in some ways for older workers to keep up with their younger counterparts, she said, companies must ensure that the most experienced employees arent feeling left behind.
The need for such programs becomes even clearer considering the fact that some 27 percent of the U.S. workforce will be over age 50 by 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Based on information from the U.S. Census Bureau, some 4.6 million workers will be at least 65 before the end of 2005.
"The IT-enabled [business] world has driven an increasing focus on results, which helps defeat some stereotypes and keep older workers employed longer, but only a few of the best companies are actively doing things to keep older workers around," Stoltz-Loike said. "Conventional wisdom says that companies should encourage older workers to retire, but thats changing and that attitude is considered more prejudiced, and bad for business."
Next Page: Employment and security issues.
Employment and Security Issues
The HR expert said many companies are finding that it is cheaper to keep their senior workers around, rather than try to train new employees, defeating another long-held hiring notion.
As a result, many more businesses are launching "employee engagement" programs aimed squarely at keeping older workers on board. By taking lifestyle issues into account and creating more flexible working conditions, companies will have even more success in holding onto their employees, Stoltz-Loike said.
For its part, Washington-based AARP is working to understand how it can adapt its online tools, which revolve around its "Older Wider Wired" site, to better serve the needs of seniors in the future.
Mark Carpenter, general manager of Web strategy and services for AARP, detailed the organizations Web 2011 project that aims to anticipate the online needs of U.S. citizens in six years time, at which point the first generation of Baby Boomers will turn 65.
"The Web wont be just an option in 2011, it will be the leading way in which people communicate with us," Carpenter said. "The Internet offers AARP an extremely effective channel; were building toward the level of trust, security and control that the Baby Boomers will need, as theyre a more tech-savvy group of people."
Carpenters nod toward privacy and security underlined some of the perspectives offered by Dr. Michael D. Cantor, an expert in geriatric medicine who is also a lawyer.
Cantor highlighted the growing protection of health care information offered by the federal governments HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) of 1996, but pointed out that even that legislation has some dangerous potential. For instance, Cantor said, HIPAA allows companies such as health care providers to share patients information with drug makers.
In addition to the growing number of places where peoples medical records are being stored and distributed, which he identified as a growing identity theft threat, Cantor detailed the need for privacy regulations for the emerging monitoring systems being developed for use in older peoples homes.
While the systems could represent a significant leap forward in aiding sick people or seniors with mental health issues, he warned that individuals must be given the option to turn the technologies off and should tightly control those organizations who may be watching their daily activities.
"We dont know how much of a factor privacy is, or will be, to adoption of this new technology by older people," Cantor said. "We need more ability to limit just who can access this personal information, and know that only the people we want can see it, or who exactly in the health care system gets to look at. Those are the only ways we can promise to protect peoples privacy."
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