Assistive Technology and Elders

When considering assistive computer technology for elders, three issues need to be addressed: how will they need to be accommodated, what technology exists to provide accommodations, and how can these technologies be presented so elders will use them.

How Do Elders Need To Be Accommodated?

For elders, disability exists on a continuum of severity. Some disabilities are a natural part of aging and are generally mild.  Other disabilities rise in incidence with age, and may be mild to severe. Finally, more people with mild to severe long-term disabilities are living well beyond retirement age.

Almost all elders will experience changes in the following capabilities:

  • Vision. Standard changes affect the ability to focus, to discriminate among certain color combinations,  and to pick out one object among many. Light absorption by the eye is also reduced, so that increased lighting is required for reading and other tasks.
  • Musculoskeletal. Elders experience muscle strength reduction and a slowed response time. Muscle functionality also changes, so that for example vocal cords will not close fully.
  • Hearing. Elders experience a gradually decreasing ability to hear high-pitched tones (speech, alarms, etc.). There are also gender-related differences: women lose more ability to hear low-frequency tones, while men lose more ability to hear high-frequency tones.
  • Cognition. There are decreases in both fluid intelligence (the ability to analyze new/unclear situations) and the ability to move information from short- to long-term memory.

Some disabilities increase in incidence with age, such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, and arthritis. There are also conditions associated with aging that are unique to current elder generations, such as post-polio syndrome and longtime survival with AIDS.

What Technology Exists To Provide Accommodations?

A variety of simple and free or inexpensive solutions to address the needs of elders are available:

  • Built-in settings. The "Try It Yourself" options described in Large Computer Pointers/Cursors, Screen Magnifier Software, Keyboards for Users with Dexterity Impairments, and Accessible Mice will meet the needs of many elders.
  • “Craft store” accommodations. It's possible to use "puffy" fabric paint, available at most craft stores, to make key nubs easier to feel or to draw a "T" on the Tab key to make it easier to find. Rubber fabric such as Rubbermain shelf liners may be used to keep keyboards from slipping. A colorful sticker placed on the left mouse button can remind elders that it's the one used to click on links.
  • Simple third-party accommodations. These may include magnification software that provides low levels of text enlargement, large-print labels on keyboards, and keyboards laid out in alphabetic order for elders who never learned to type.

How Can These Technologies Be Presented?

Just because assistive technologies are available doesn't mean elders will be eager about using them. There are some strategies, however, that can make introduction more successful:

  • Interview users before purchasing or implementing specific solutions. It will be very helpful if potential assistive technology users can describe the product features they would most like to have, and even better if they can recommend products they've worked with and found helpful.
  • Mainstream their use. A good way to do this if you are introducing assistive technology to a group is to identify the leader or leaders and provide them with a private demonstration. If they respond positively, they may be able to communicate their enthusiasm to others.
  • Focus on limitations of environment, not people. When introducing magnification software, for example, don't say, "This will help compensate for your low vision." Instead, say something like, "I know how much you hate the small letters on the screen. Can I show you a way to make them larger?"
  • Provide as much control to the user as possible. Let them ask questions and make suggestions about assistive technology settings and uses.

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