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Technology, ageing, and the importance of including older adults in research

As the the world experiences a global demographic shift towards older adults, we are simultaneously experiencing an unprecedented expansion in technological innovation. Naturally, these two phenomena have a considerable degree of cross-over, with increasing efforts towards applying technological innovations to improve the quantity and quality of life experienced by older adults. Ranging from virtual-reality devices developed to treat anxiety disorders to assistive technologies developed to increase mobility, the potential for integrating innovation into gerontological contexts is boundless. However, it is critically important for researchers to take into consideration the perspectives of the older adults who will actually be using these technologies.

Older adults have traditionally demonstrated the lowest levels of technology uptake and usage when compared to younger demographic groups. This challenge has been described in various ways, notably as the “digital divide”, highlighting the multifactorial nature of the barriers to entry for these technologies. The majority of technologies available for public consumption, such as smartphones or tablets, are not developed with the older adult user in mind or retrofit for older adult populations, which has resulted in an exacerbation of this digital divide. This method highlights the “push” model: a technology is developed and a need for that product is then identified. Rather than identifying a challenge or research questions and searching for an appropriate solution, the push model starts with an answer and looks for a question.

“Pull” models of technology development aim to identify areas where challenges exist and seek to work with end-users to develop a solution. In industry and in research, we must focus on identifying the needs of older adults. Participatory research methods have been gaining increased attention for their focus on actively involving older adults in the development of research programs, designing research studies, and the integration of research concepts into the real world. As researchers, we must be particularly mindful as to whether the research we are conducting is meaningful to older adults and whether or not the findings can reasonably and feasibly be integrated into the lives of older adults.

In my own research, I have found participatory research incredibly enlightening. As a thirty-something-year-old who spends every day working with a variety of technologies, my perspectives on technology is vastly disparate from that of an older adult who has just received their first smart phone. Although it should be intuitive, a researcher sitting in an office writing a grant application, may not realise that their perspectives on older adults’ needs may not be grounded in reality. This has certainly been the case for me; what I had thought was important (and unimportant) differed on many levels from the people I was hoping to impact. Consequently, this prompted a shift in how I aim to develop research questions, how I conduct studies, and how I interpret and integrate the results from these studies.

A recent activity I had the privilege to be involved in was the co-production of a lay summary for a scientific abstract with a group of older adults. Nearly every research project requires an abstract that is intended for consumption by the general public and nearly every research project does an underwhelming job of producing these communications. As part of this project we took a technologically dense project I have been working on – applying artificial intelligence analysis to large-scale epidemiological studies to develop risk phenotypes for mental illness – and attempted to make this comprehensible. We held several workshops during which a facilitator would discuss with a group of older adults how they interpreted different aspects of the technical abstract: What made sense? What didn’t make sense? How could this be reworded? Working with these older adults highlighted that what I think is very clear, as I sit at a desk writing grant applications, may be unintelligible to the people I am hoping to impact. Further, the language and jargon that I may be commonplace in the research vacuum may have different meanings outside of research. As part of this project we worked through this abstract and developed a framework for how to develop a lay abstract (paper to come!), which was a real pleasure to be involved with.

As we move towards increasing technological complexity in the context of an expanding population of older adults, we need to be diligent in the integration of the perspectives of older adults into research projects. From the workshopping of research ideas through to the communication of the research findings, the integration of perspectives of older adults is critical to the success and uptake of technology and innovation.

About the Author

Theodore D Cosco joined the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing in 2016 as a Research Fellow. Dr. Cosco is a Chartered Psychologist (British Psychological Society) trained in applied social research methods (MSc 2011, Trinity College Dublin) and epidemiology (PhD 2015, University of Cambridge), and Assistant Professor of Mental Health and Aging in the Department of Gerontology, Simon Fraser University. His research interests include resilience, mental health, and the interface between technology and healthy 3ageing. 

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