What the Pandemic Taught Us about Technology

Conversations with Katie | June 29, 2021

Older consumers are changing and the field of aging services needs to change right along with them, writes President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan.

In September 1940, residents of London followed a gruesome routine: after enduring nightly bombings that became known as the “Blitz,” Londoners emerged from their air-raid shelters each morning and took stock of how their neighborhoods had been transformed overnight while they had been hiding from the bombs.

Many of us can relate to this experience as the war against the coronavirus, which we’ve waged valiantly for the past year, shows signs of slowing down, due to rising vaccination rates and declining COVID-19 cases. Like those Londoners, we’re slowly emerging from our homes after our year-long lockdown, looking around at our world, and noticing big and small transformations in our communities and our society.

Stores and restaurants went out of business while we sheltered in place. New attitudes emerged about business travel and office space after a year of working from home. And, according to MIT AgeLab Director Joe Coughlin, older adults changed their attitudes about the role technology could play in their lives.

Technology products—computers, tablets, and a host of smart devices—have been flying off store shelves since March 2020, Coughlin told participants in the Collaborative Care Health IT Summit earlier this month. Many of those purchases were made by adult children worried about their socially distanced parents. But, surprisingly, people in their 70s and 80s made up a significant portion of technology purchasers. The pandemic lockdown forced these older adults to learn how to use technology that they had ignored for years. Not surprisingly, they liked it.

I loved hearing this. It confirmed my long-standing belief that older consumers are changing and that the field of aging services needs to change right along with them.

Like me, Coughlin thinks we’ve got a lot of work to do before we can adequately address the needs and preferences of this new consumer. In the technology sector, we need to:

Customize technology. Coughlin seriously doubts that the new consumer is going to believe that one technology fits everyone. We need to work harder to provide older consumers with customized technology that fits their individual needs and preferences.

Think more broadly. Older adults don’t want technology that makes them feel “old,” and they want more from technology than reminders to take their medications. Post-pandemic, they’ll be looking for technology that offers them new experiences, helps them connect with friends, and gives them the opportunity to have fun.

Expand access. If the pandemic taught us anything, it is that technology access is an equity issue. People with low incomes, those with less education, and those living in places where broadband is not widely available didn’t cope with the pandemic as well as those with better technology access. We need to address these equity issues—and quickly. The lives of older people depend on it.

Design better. We don’t need more technology devices; we need devices that work better because they are better designed, better integrated, and easier to use. Coughlin doesn’t buy into the idea that older people can’t use technology. Technology that cannot be used by an older adult is simply bad technology, he says.

Increase security. The more data we collect from older adults, the greater is our obligation to make sure the systems that carry that data are secure.

Train caregivers. All of our caregivers—social workers, gerontologists, doctors, nurses, and direct care professionals—must be “technology savvy as well as care savvy,” says Coughlin. Doctors, in particular, need to understand the merits of telemedicine so they will use it and advocate for its broad acceptance.

All of these recommendations—and our technology mandate moving forward—boil down to three words: quality of life. If done well, technology can change our care settings, our organizations, and our business processes. But all of those changes must be carried out with one overall mission: improving quality of life for the people we serve.

For this reason, technology deserves our attention, our creativity, and our vigilance as we work to ensure that all older adults have equal access to tools that can transform their lives.