“I am really sorry,” said the elderly gentleman to the person manning the checkout counter. “It usually works,” he added, frantically wiping the beads of sweat on his forehead. Due to health regulations, the AC was also off. The 12 PM curfew was fast approaching.

Seeing the crowd behind him get agitated, the cashier broke the line into two. The other customers started checking out while the gentleman was taken to the side. Even as I reached the counter, the elder was still not able to pay. That is when he said, “I will come back with cash, and take this. Please keep my things safe.” 

I walked up to him and asked for his phone. At one glance, I figured out that his bank servers were not working. When I suggested he use another bank account, he told me he did not know how to do it. I walked him through the process. 2 minutes later we were out of the supermarket, groceries in hand.

But the question is, what if I was not there?

—–

The incident above happened in a well-to-do neighborhood in Chennai. The government had just imposed a lockdown and the elder had come to the nearest department store. He was struggling with switching his payment bank. Ask any millennial or GenZ-er, and they can do it in a jiffy. But as in this case, such “simple” things are not intuitive for elders.

Why Elders Struggle with Tech

In the early 2000s, the world became digital—and fast. Elders who grew up with a single black and white TV in their homes were suddenly bombarded with flatscreens, mobile phones, and white mice that had cables. And while millennials basked in the glory of the internet, the older generations preferred phones hooked to a wire and the dial-up modem. A detailed study about why there was such a chasm between the two age groups, conducted with seniors of various levels of computer literacy, revealed two main reasons.

#1: Inadequate Guidance and Instructions

Elders face a huge problem with how instruction manuals for devices are written. The first challenge is the way in which they are typically written. “The manual is written by the techies,” commented an elder. Another said, “If you’re sitting there by yourself trying to read the instructions that would be quite scary.” These sentiments were mirrored by most participants and were a major reason for the apprehension towards technology.

Device instructions come in small fonts, loaded with technical jargon. Even if the manuals are digital, most elders do not know how to zoom in and zoom out. And when they ask for directions from their youngsters, they are often shaded for their inability to operate something “so simple.” “My son is just too fast,” said an elder who had just started learning how to use a tablet. The son had also told the senior “use your brain, you should know this.” But biology is the next hurdle to elders learning technology.

#2: Health-Related Barriers

At the biological level, aging causes an accumulation of molecular and cellular damage, collected over the years. The deterioration can be clubbed into four key areas.

  1. Perceptual—Decline in vision and hearing
  2. Psychomotor—Slower motor reactions
  3. Cognitive—Reduced memory powers, divided attention, and information processing
  4. Physical—Decreased dexterity and muscle strength

These factors make quintessential activities for using apps like pressing small buttons, scrolling, and navigating new updates, tedious for elders. “My daughter comes and helps me, but she presses a few buttons and it’s, ‘there you are mother’. I am left asking, what did your fingers do?” commented an elder, when asked about her experience of learning how to use a tablet.

These two barriers make it clear that seniors are at a disadvantage when it comes to using new technology. But with COVID-19 fanning the digital fire in hyperspeed, learning how to use at least the essential apps—shopping apps, caller apps, online appointments, ticketing apps, etc., has become a necessity for elders. Designing simple to use, elder-focussed apps is going to be an important part of making tech more accessible to elders.

How to Make Apps Senior Friendly 

Keep Designs & Gesture Control to A Minimum

From the screen layout to the buttons, the user interface has to be simple and easy to use. The buttons should be big and the clickable area large, so that there is no accidental navigation. Swiping and pressing are also preferred over scrolling. Since elders have thinner and drier skin, scrolling is often cumbersome for them. Avoiding unnecessary content — should be the unspoken rule.

Make Everything Accessible on One Screen

Navigating through different features is a major struggle which elders face. Having everything on one single screen makes it easier for elders to keep a tab of what they need and order. Big buttons are always a plus.

Decoding the UI of the Alserv App

Take, for example, the Alserv App (available both for Android and iOS). Designed after intensive consultation with geriatric experts, the app is made to be super-easy for seniors to use.

The menu includes a simple swipe feature, that is easy to access and understand. Clear instructions are also given on the services. Everything that an elder needs is also included in one single screen. The colors and the fonts are also chosen such that the eyes are not strained.

The language is simple and straightforward with no technical jargon, making the interface easy to understand. And with all the eldercare services in one place, the app is the perfect companion for any senior using it.

The Future of Seniors & Technology

Lockdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic have made it necessary for elders to become accustomed to basic apps. Seniors have also understood this. The number of elders using electronic gadgets increased by 77% during the pandemic. However, the survey revealed that the primary usage was for messaging and chatting purposes.

The focus needs to shift from connectivity to daily activities. There is a significant need for technology that enables elders to live independently. The viral video of an elder speaking to a Google assistant is a classic example of how wonderfully technology cannot fulfill an elder’s need without additional guidance. Technology should be accessible and understandable to all.

However, the main goal should be to create an ecosystem of care, rather than making seniors tech agnostic. Without tech, if an elder is living a comfortable life, why stir the pot unnecessarily?  The primary focus should always be comfort and convenience. Technology should only be an enabler in the process.