Evidence-Based Reviews

Helping older adults overcome the challenges of technology

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Interventions need to focus on both cognitive enhancement and functional skills training.



Technology is pervasive, and for many people, it is central to their daily activities. Younger people who have been exposed to technology for their entire lives take this for granted, but older individuals often have had much less experience with it. Many technological developments that are now a part of most people’s daily life, such as personal computers, cell phones, and automated teller machines (ATMs), have occurred in the past 4 decades, with the pace accelerating in the last 15 to 20 years.

Such changes have had a substantial impact on older adults who were never exposed to these technologies during their working life. For example, an 85-year-old person who retired at age 65 would probably have not been exposed to wireless internet prior to retirement. Therefore, all of the tasks that they are now required to complete online would have been performed in other ways. Banking, accessing instruction manuals for new devices, and even scheduling and confirming health care appointments and accessing medical records all now require individuals to have a level of technological skills that many older individuals find challenging. At times, this can limit their ability to complete routine daily activities, and also can have clinical implications (Table).

Older adults and technological skills: Clinical implications

Fortunately, there are strategies clinicians can use to help their older patients face these challenges. In this article, we describe the cognitive domains associated with learning technological skills, how aging affects these domains, and what can be done to help older adults improve their technological skills.

Limited training on how to use new technology

Technological skills are similar to any other skills in one critical way: they need to be learned. At the same time, technological skills also differ from many other skills, such as playing a musical instrument, because of the constant updating of devices, programs, and applications. When smartphones or computers update their operating systems, the visual appearance of the screen and the way that tasks are performed also can change. Buttons can move and sequences of commands can be altered. Updates often happen with little or no notice, and users may need to navigate a completely different device landscape in order to perform tasks that they had previously mastered.

In addition, the creators/distributors of technology typically provide little training or documentation. Further, institutions such as banks or health care systems frequently do not provide any specific training for using their systems. For example, when patients are required to use technology to refill prescriptions, typically there is no training available on how the system operates.

Cognitive domains associated with technological skills

Because there are minimal opportunities to receive training in how to use most aspects of technology, users have to be able to learn by exposure and experience. This requires several different cognitive abilities to work together. In a recent review, Harvey1 described cognition and cognitive assessment in the general population, with a focus on cognitive domains. Here we discuss several of these domains in terms of the relationship to real-world functional tasks and discuss their importance for mastering technology.

Reasoning and problem solving. Because most technological devices and applications are designed to be “intuitive,” the user needs to be able to adopt a sequential approach to learning the task. For example, using the internet to refill a prescription requires several steps:

  • accessing the internet
  • finding the pharmacy web site
  • establishing a user ID and password
  • navigating the web site to the prescriptions section
  • identifying the correct prescription
  • requesting the refill
  • selecting the pickup date and time.

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