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Serving Super Seniors: How Are Older Adults Really Using Technology?

Scott Lien June 3, 2019

Technology works best when it brings people together. With the rise of elder tech, older adults will be able to live independently longer. However, what do we really know about older adults and their use of technology? Until we understand how older adults are using technology, we cannot assume that standard devices like computers, smart phones, and tablets are helping them stay connected and thus, less isolated and lonely.

Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression and cognitive decline. This is a huge problem and one that needs to be solved, and fast.

I love building teams that solve complicated problems that have never been solved before. Eleven years ago, I was CIO at Bank of America and was part of the online banking team. Crazy as it sounds, this was a huge milestone in tech and finance. One of the main concerns was security, so overcoming that obstacle of executing mobile banking in a safe and secure way was an incredibly significant breakthrough at the time.

For the past five years, I’ve been focused on a different challenge and that’s reconnecting an awesome group of people, whom we lovingly refer to as “Super Seniors”—those over the age of 75—to their families in a simple and secure way.

When conducting user testing in the early days at GrandPad, we would sit down with countless older adults, some 100+ years old, and would observe all the challenges they were experiencing with standard technology. Everything we learned, we incorporated into the design of our product so it would be better suited to the needs of our end-user.

Recently, GrandPad conducted new research to look at the gap between what seniors say about tech use vs. actual use.

Traditional research says that of the older adults surveyed aged 65 and older, 78% have a cellphone, 32% have a tablet and 52% have a desktop or laptop computer. The problem with this research is that it’s been hindered by both sampling bias and “best light” bias. People reached on the phone are different than those who cannot be reached. Those reached over the phone were younger seniors resulting in a younger, healthier sample who tended to be under the age of 75. Chief Gerontologist, Dr. Kerry Burnight, refers to as “sampling” bias. In addition to sample bias, there is “best light bias,” which occurs when behaviors, like being tech-savvy, are over-reported because humans want to be seen in the best light possible.

So, we set out to find out what is really going on in real life by compiling a sample of participants consisting of  56 adults from six states, including Florida, California, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Iowa. Participants ranged in age from 75 to 98. Mirroring the community, the group included respondents with no limitations, as well as those who were hard of hearing, frail and living with cognitive impairment. We called this the “In Real Life Study” and rather than assume that owning a phone, tablet or computer meant the ability to access its features, we went into the homes of seniors to see first hand about the ability of the respondents to send and receive email, make video calls, access digital music and share photographs.

What we found out was shockingly different than what has been reported previously:

  • 95% miss out on video calls
  • 93% don’t access digital music
  • 87% have been solicited by scammers
  • 86% are frustrated with technology
  • 50% don’t have access to the internet, email, computer, tablet

Our “In Real Life” study reveals a reality far different than the one portrayed by conventional research. If we’re going to work together to stop loneliness and social isolation among older adults, we must first understand that standard technology that was designed for a 30 year old is not working for Super Seniors. We need to work to understand the unique and wonderful capabilities of older adults and design technology that they will enjoy using and that helps bring families back together again.


Stria sponsors GrandPad and Home Instead made “The Role of Technology in Social Isolation” special editorial series possible.

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Scott Lien

Scott is GrandPad's Chief Executive Officer, leading the company as it builds a platform that empowers seniors of all ages and technological skills to connect with family, friends, and caregivers. Having previously developed user-friendly software for companies such as Target, Best Buy, and Bank of America, as well as having led the mobile technology innovation group at Intuit, Scott brings a wealth of knowledge and leadership experience to the team. He is a practitioner of the LEAN Startup Method, which emphasizes putting users first and designing specifically to their needs. With GrandPad, he strives to create a world where no seniors are lonely or isolated.

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