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Tweaking Tech for Seniors

Technology has already changed how Americans age. Video conferencing connects grandparents with far-flung grandchildren; tiny, powerful sensors now detect falls, monitor vital signs and enable seniors to live alone and yet have real-time support in case of an emergency.

But, say psychology researchers Neil Charness and Walter Boot, manufacturers have a long way to go in designing for aging boomers and their parents.

Many of the 65-plus set are not taking full advantage of technology readily available to them. A survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, found more than 70 percent of Americans younger than 65 used computers at least occasionally while less than 40 percent of those over 65 did.

Charness and Boot reviewed some of the latest research in the area of aging and technology—or gerontechnology—that suggest why many seniors don't adopt new technologies and how manufacturers can better design their products for seniors in a fast-evolving digital age. Their findings were published last fall in Current Directions in Psychological Science (October issue).

Changes in eyesight and hearing and privacy concerns are among the factors that make older adults hesitant to use new technology, the researchers say. But if tech designers are aware of these issues, they can address them by avoiding low-contrasting colors on Web sites, for example, and by using large fonts and buttons on gadgets. Monitor-makers can alleviate privacy concerns by making systems as unobtrusive as possible. If a monitoring system uses cameras, for example, people feel more comfortable if depicted as a shape rather than with a clear image.

One of the most exciting areas of gerontechnology, say Charness and Boot, is the development of brain fitness games to slow the decline of seniors' cognitive abilities. While only 23 percent of seniors played video games (compared to 81 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds), they played almost every day, the Pew survey found. Early research suggests that computer games can indeed improve brain fitness.

Charness and Boot are part of a group called the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement, or CREATE, that renewed its funding from the National Institute on Aging for the next five years.

Tech companies seem to be paying attention to what they're doing, Charness says. He receives calls for advice from IBM and other electronics manufacturers on designing for seniors. And notably, the Consumer Electronics Show, where more than 100,000 gadget enthusiasts gather every January, created a one-day Silvers Summit to present new technology aimed at the mature market.

As if summing up Charness and Boots' research, one silver-haired blogger at the summit put it, "Don't design us out!"—C.S.