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."