Does Any Computer Appeal to Seniors?

I work in the aging technology business. That means I'm immersed daily in the disconnect between how tech positions itself -- new-fangled and sleek, subtle to the point of invisibility -- and the stated needs of the elderly. Luckily for me, I also have my mother, who just turned 83.

My firm started hearing about the Telikin -- a computer designed specifically with the elderly in mind-- through our clients. Our 20-something engineers stuck up their noses at it. "I hate it!" one cried. "Just think what kind of playful things they could have done with icons. And that user interface is totally not intuitive."

It is pretty darned ugly. Too much on the screen, cumbersome UI for entering contacts and calendar entries. It looks like it took a trip in the way back machine. I shrugged, and thought -- well, another lost opportunity to connect with seniors. Figures.

But my mother was in town visiting me that day to celebrate her birthday. My mom is struggling desperately with technology right now. Deeply devoted to her 11-year-old Mac which runs OS 9 -- a long-abandoned operating system -- she feels nothing short of betrayal at the notion that she has to navigate a new interface. She is so accustomed to AOL dial-up that she just can't adjust to putting in a password in order to read her web-based email... if she can even see the cursor that tells her where to type.

So I took the Telikin home to see what the target audience thought of it. Her face lit up like the Las Vegas skyline after a power outage. "Can I touch it?" she asked. I suggested that she touch the word that said "Email." Sakes Alive! If you touch email you actually get your email. "I want to get on Facebook," she announced. "All my friends are on Facebook now." Okay then.

Needless to say, my mother is now the proud owner of a Telikin, and has successfully video chatted with my daughter, her tutor.

That's great for her. But do you know what that means for me? It means I can send her pictures of what the kids are doing, so she feels connected to our lives. It means she can click through hot links on confirmation emails from the airlines so she doesn't need to call me to do it for her. It means I can send her a quick thought when I'm sitting in a boring meeting and she'll receive it minutes later, rather than being limited to semi-weekly phone calls which are, by necessity, chockablock with logistics. It means she can talk to my children the way they feel most comfortable -- by Skype or email or Facebook.

In short, it means she's no longer cut off, and I'm no longer playing translator from the wired world. She's not anxious and demoralized about the things she's missing out on, and I'm not frustrated by trying to puzzle through technical problems from 400 miles away. And that's really the bottom line for caregivers. It's not that we don't want to be bothered, and it's not that we don't want to help out. It's that everyone is happier when older adults do more for themselves rather than less.

In a study of communities where people generally lead healthy and active lives to the age 100, perhaps the most critical element was inclusion in and respect from their younger neighbors and family members. Rather than becoming "other than" or "unable to", the elderly in these settings are the wise, omniscient arbiters of good judgment and pragmatic thinking. They are the center, not the margin.

At a time when nearly 10 million people over the age of 50 are caring for their aging parents (reports this study conducted by the MetLife Mature Market Institute), the nature of this burden is important. Many boomers (mostly women) are quitting jobs to care for an elderly relative, and the lost wages associated with that decision average nearly $143,000. When foregone pension and Social Security benefits are counted, the out-of-pocket losses roughly double, and no calculation has been done on the impact of losing health insurance when unemployed.

Technology can't substitute for human interaction, and it never will. But it can ease the demands of caregiving in the early years, and buy everyone much needed time. After all, most caregivers are embarking on a marathon rather than a sprint. The longer they can keep themselves and their elderly loved ones sane, the better off everyone is.