Technology and Older Adults: The Heart of the Matter is in the Heart

1/31/13 By Suneel Ratan

This wonderful piece from The New York Times, Talking, Walking Objects gets to the heart of the matter about our relationship with technology. And, without being too cute, the heart of the matter lies in the heart, about creating an emotional connection between technology and the user.

This particular article is about the advent of increasingly smart objects and robots, many of which will be connected to the Internet that will convey information through sounds (including voice), movements and gestures, vibrations, and color changes. Indeed, it will seem as if they are coming alive:

“Through their personalities, these objects will offer us emotional value along with other features. Siri, the iPhone speech recognition search engine, has already won the hearts of many by displaying a consistent, witty personality with which people can converse. Autom, a new countertop weight-loss product, was created by researchers who learned that a robotic coach with expressive eyes and face was more effective at keeping dieters eating better and exercising more because the emotional bond was created.”

There are many implications for the lives of older adults. These examples point the way to the increasing adoption of Internet-based information and assistive technologies that can support older adults in aging wherever they choose in the community through technologies that appeal to emotions, including a newfound sense of mastery, and that foster social connectedness.

I’ve seen the gleam of delight in the eyes of an older adult who has never used a computer as they talk about how a newly acquired tablet is opening up a whole new world. That tracks with the experience of Front Porch, a Los Angeles-based senior-living provider, which received a grant from the Center for Technology and Aging for a program involving giving older adults cell phones to receive text-based medication reminders. Many of the older adults had never used a cell phone before – and participants during a focus group expressed gratitude for the training, and even pride at being able to use a cell phone.

When I worked in telehealth, we heard time and again from the older adults we served that the reason they stayed in programs was because the technology reinforced their connection to a care manager, who in turn represented a real, live human being looking out for them. This is further echoed in the Center’s experience, in which its most successful grant programs have been those that are able to establish an emotional connection between patients and the technology. Here’s a vignette that nicely captures the various dimensions in which technology can have a positive impact through emotion and connection:

    Mrs. L is a 90-year old retired teacher who lives alone. Last year she was hospitalized for congestive heart failure. After enrolling in the telehealth program, she is now able to take care of her personal needs by herself. She does find it hard to get out of the house, however, so she has her groceries delivered. Soon after the remote monitoring equipment was installed in her home, she told a program staff member that she was delighted to be able to use the equipment to send her weight, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation levels easily and wirelessly to her doctor’s office. “I don’t feel so alone now that I have the equipment,” she said. “When I send in the results every day, I feel like my nurse and doctor are still watching over me without my struggling to get to the clinic.” Mrs. L. described how she can’t wait to get on the scale every morning to weigh herself. “It talks to me!” she exclaimed. “It tells me to stand still, then announces my weight so I don’t have to read the numbers, and then tells me when to step off. It is like a friend. I’m devoted to the equipment, even though the blood pressure cuff and pulse tester don’t ever say anything to me. I wish I could keep the equipment. I do have a heart condition and I’m in my 91st year, after all!”

And we know that this emotional element is critical in supporting the independence of older adults. Last summer, a widely reported study in the Archives of Internal Medicine noted that self-reported loneliness was associated with functional decline and early death.

The idea of technology fostering human connection isn’t necessarily the point of the Times story – which is about building behavior into machines that can evoke human emotional responses. Carried to a logical conclusion, doing so could actually reduce the need for real human interaction. But one needn’t go to extremes. Rather, it’s just to say that designing for emotion is something we need to keep top of mind as we develop technologies and programs to support older adults in remaining connected and independent.

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