Kerry Burnight

We live in the age of technology. It’s supposed to make our lives better and easier, but not everyone is benefitting from its use.

In fact, there is a large group of individuals who face daily challenges with standard technology. This group, super seniors, as I like to call them, range in age between 75 and 113.

More than 53% of super seniors are not online, and those who are online are being barraged by cyber scams resulting in financial exploitation. Families try to help, but the trouble-shooting can seem endless, especially for families who don’t live near their older loved ones. So what’s the answer?

1. Easy-to-use technology that addresses social isolation.

The digital divide exacerbates a hidden epidemic among older adults: social isolation and loneliness.

Research shows that chronic loneliness is as hazardous to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. This fact is staggering when coupled with the finding that 43% of older adults experience chronic loneliness.

Loneliness and social isolation, defined as wanting more of a connection than you currently have, is a hidden killer. The effect of social isolation can’t be overestimated, especially when you consider that those affected have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and a 64% increased chance of dementia. Diminished health of our older generation puts an enormous burden on the already struggling stability of the healthcare system.

As humans, we need to eat, to sleep, to exercise and to connect with other humans in meaningful ways. Seniors need innovation-driven technology that can help them connect, but the product must be sophisticatedly engineered and create intuitive, frustration free solutions for people aged more than 75.

2. Technology that is secure and frustration free.

In looking for solutions, I tried standard devices, and none of them were secure. They were also full of frustration.

I have an iPhone, with its tiny buttons, small plug-in charging cable, multiple passwords and credit card input requests but would not expect a 90-year-old to embrace this design, which was created for someone in their 20s. Not only is an iPhone difficult to set up; the box it comes in is not designed for older adults, and it’s difficult to open.

Additionally, many standard devices require passwords and configuration, leaving seniors so fed up that they don’t get around to using the device that is there to help them connect.

3. Devices that use engagement features.

As a professor of medicine at the University of California, Irvine, I learned a great deal about the benefits of music therapy, especially in older adults with dementia, as it employs cognitive skills to avoid losing them. As I searched for a technological solution to social isolation, I found devices that used engagement features, such as music and games, to help not only with cognitive skills and dexterity, but also connecting with other humans, as well as feeling a sense of accomplishment.

4. Includes customer service.

I spent my professional career trying to eradicate the loneliness I observed in the older adults that I worked with. Although there are several technology products on the market — such as voice-enabled technologies and social robots — that claim to aid seniors, they’re missing a key component, which is the human element — live, loving, available humans who are available to support the users.

Older adults come from a generation in which the human approach was the most highly regarded customer service trait. We all should be valued, so whether it’s a follow up voice call, text message or video call, the technology you choose to better connect with your senior loved one must have incredible human service.

5. Technology that provides a complete solution.

The one product on the market that has engineered out all points of frustration and works, in my biased opinion, is the GrandPad. The eight-inch, fully configured tablet arrives in an easy-to-open box designed for seniors. Photos and contacts are preloaded on the device by family, and no passwords or setup is required. Only people on the approved contacts list can send messages, and there’s a live support person on-call 24/7. This technology is important because it provides a complete solution to loneliness — hardware, software and service.

As time goes forward, the problems associated with the aging population will need to be addressed. In just 30 years, when I am 80, there will be 88 million of us over the age of 80. MIT health economist Paul Osterman, Ph.D., calls caring for seniors “the greatest policy issue of our time”. How our healthcare system serves older adults will affect every facet of society. I hold great conviction that technology can be part of this solution, but for it to work and be embraced by family, friends, and caregivers of seniors, it must be brilliantly designed and lovingly executed.

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