Debra Berlyn: Five Questions Older Adults Should Ask About Being Online

Will Grammy find that “connection” and get the final rose? While that remains to be seen, we do know older adults are increasingly getting connected to broadband!  While reports indicate there are still a significant number in the aging community who aren’t connected (22 million still don’t have broadband, representing 42% of the 65 and older U.S. population), there are many new and recent 65+ Internet users, thanks to major commitments from the government and industry.

The U.S. is dedicating billions of dollars to connect everyone, everywhere to broadband with programs such as the Affordable Connectivity Program and the Broadband Equity and Advancement Program.  Industry partners have also invested significant dollars for broadband buildout and to implement affordable service plans for those that qualify in unserved and underserved areas.

A broadband connection opens a universe of great opportunities and benefits for older adults that grows exponentially.  While most know of these benefits, they have a growing number of questions about what some of the latest technological developments mean for them, as well as what the future online experience will offer.

What are these burning questions that older adults have about tech?  Here are five “hot topics” at the top of the list:

What impact does Artificial Intelligence have on my daily life?

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is simply the development of computer systems to perform tasks that would normally require human intelligence.  This AI or “computer generated” intelligence can be evident in tasks such as speech recognition, visual perception, translation between languages, in some of the advanced tech devices that we use now for everyday tasks.

AI is integrated into older adults’ everyday life, with those 65+ increasingly relying on critically important technologies that utilize AI to improve and advance services. Without perhaps realizing it, older adults are using AI for music playlist recommendations, engaging with customer service chatbots that can immediately answer questions, using wearable fitness trackers that help analyze exercise patterns, and utilizing voice assistants in the home – all common uses of AI.  Artificial Intelligence is built into our smart cars, smart appliances, and telehealth applications, which are all elements of “smart” aging.

ChatGPT (and Regenerative AI):  Is this a useful technology for older adults?

The media has been buzzing about the latest AI development, ChatGPT (“Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer”). There’s a great deal of concern swirling around regarding the impact it will have on originality and individual creativity.  Leaving these debates aside, there are beneficial applications of ChatGPT for older users: 1) answering questions about any topic and engaging in “conversation,” is one example where it can be used to help to reduce isolation and sharpen cognitive skills; 2) listening and sharing stories so that an individual feels “heard;” 3) offering specific hobbies and activities geared to the individual’s interests; and 4) to potentially assist with healthcare and questions related to specific illnesses.  There are opportunities to have fun with ChatGPT as well, asking it to compose silly rhymes and respond to non-sensical questions.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality:  What’s the difference between the two, and will either one be of interest to me?

The technology of Virtual Reality or VR – immerses you in a virtual world to transport you to an experience without leaving your living room.  An older individual can put on a VR headset and ride along an open Jeep on an African safari, tour the Guggenheim Museum in New York, attend an opera or concert at Carnegie Hall, or stroll along the streets of Paris.

These are some of the applications of VR today and VR headsets are available for use at some independent and assisted living homes, providing opportunities for older individuals to enhance their daily lives.  VR is also a great tool for the elderly to reduce isolation who have limited mobility or are perhaps experiencing cognitive decline. It provides an opportunity to relive early experiences and travel the world.

Augmented Reality – or AR – is technology that overlays digital images, or a “virtual image,” on to the actual world: a “real” environment” setting for an enhanced experience.  An individual can accomplish this today by just simply using their existing device such a smartphone.  For an older adult, there could be a wide range of applications, available now and with more in the future for AR.

Shopping at home is not only easier, but more meaningful, with the opportunity for potential purchases to be viewed exactly as they will look in the home: a new rug in the store or a painting in a gallery can be viewed alongside you own existing possessions in your home.  A dress from a boutique can be “tried on” in the virtual world using AR.  AR technology can be accessed with an existing device such as a smartphone, or some other device in the future.

Privacy, Privacy, Privacy:  I want it when I’m online, so what action should I take?

Older adults recognize the ubiquitous nature of technology in their lives today and anticipate innovations to come but can hesitate about its use because of privacy concerns.  According to the American Society on Aging, “Elders often avoid buying or limit using technology because of privacy, security, usability and other concerns.”  Older adults need and want to engage privacy protections in their tech devices.

There are currently tools available to set-up privacy and security protections for devices most older adults are using, such as smartphones, tablets, home security systems and voice assistants.  However, as the innovative space gets more complex, older adults will need to understand the privacy and security risks of the tech they’re using, as well as learn to engage any available protections to maintain their privacy.

What’s Next?  How can tech help me stay in my home?

As we consider innovations to assist older adults in aging well, there are several opportunities within the home and community. A recent AARP report demonstrates that there are a growing number of older adults who have adopted smart home technology to manage their energy services, security, and appliances. As autonomous vehicles continue to develop, they will offer older individuals ongoing independence well into the older years. Technology holds great promise to provide new innovative ways to support caregiving.

For older adults, a broadband connection is the gateway to new opportunities for aging well.  As more within the community get connected, questions and concerns will continue regarding new technologies.  Clear information to address these issues will help to ensure they have a safe and secure online experience and to continue to receive the great benefits innovation offers.

Debra Berlyn is the Executive Director of the Project to Get Older Adults onLine (Project GOAL), which works to promote the adoption of broadband for older adults, and to advance technology applications for the community. She is also president of Consumer Policy Solutions, is on the board of the National Consumers League, and is a board member and senior fellow with the Future of Privacy Forum. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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