Study breaks down the barriers of modern age

Dr Elizabeth Williams with Sylvia and Ron Wright, who took part in the project
Dr Elizabeth Williams with Sylvia and Ron Wright, who took part in the project
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For younger generations, swiping the screen on an iPad, operating a smartphone or using a laptop are generally easy activities.

But place a gleaming piece of high-tech equipment in front of a pensioner, and matters can become a little more tricky, with vague instructions, touchscreen devices and advanced features proving frustrating.

However, a Sheffield University study has been under way which aims to help older people become more comfortable with technology – in particular equipment which could help them live more active and independent lives.

The research project, called Challenging Obstacles and Barriers to Assistive Living Technologies, or COBALT for short, has been running for two years, and is a collaboration between the charity Age UK and the universities of Sheffield, Reading and St Andrews in Scotland.

As part of the study, adults aged 65 or over were invited to attend a 10-week programme of workshops, in which they were asked for their opinions on modern technology, and how special devices could be designed to help them in everyday life.

In Sheffield the project was led by Dr Elizabeth Williams, from the university’s medical school, who said technological progress is currently far outstripping its actual rate of use among elderly folk.

“Technology has the potential to support people to live and age well, but there is currently a gap between developments in technology and the number of people using it in their everyday lives,” she said.

“This may be because people are unsure about its use. There is evidence to suggest that older people are wary of ‘Big Brother’-type monitoring systems, especially in their own homes.”

Participants aged 69 to 84 attended the Sheffield workshops, with the main task being to redesign a touch-screen product called NANA – Novel Assessment of Nutrition in Ageing.

“It is a touch-screen device used to assess nutritional intake, cognitive function, mood and frailty,” said Dr Williams.

“The group participants were very keen that the system should provide the user with feedback about their nutritional intake and to provide them with advice around diet.

“For example, the redesigned system might suggest that the user should have a glass of milk tomorrow if he has not had enough calcium today.

“Some group members liked the touch screen but some wanted a remote control or voice-activated system.”

But Dr Williams said the group were not keen for a device to include any form of social networking or Facebook-style facility, which they saw as ‘invasive and unnecessary’.

Sylvia and Ron Wright, from Meersbrook in Sheffield, were two of the participants who signed up for the study.

Ron, aged 82, used to sell computer systems, while Sylvia, 78, is a retired office worker.

Both said they were happy using computers, but had their own opinions on how products should be designed.

“Not all old people are sick and ill – they’re still interested in life and being fit and healthy,” said Sylvia.

“The project was about finding out from us what we need to know. For a couple of weeks we had a touch-screen computer placed in our home which recorded each meal we ate. It was quite a good system.”

Dr Williams said ‘show and tell’ sessions were held, where pensioners brought in technologies they enjoyed using.

“We asked people to bring in the technologies they loved. Some people turned up with Kindles and iPads, things you’d generally associate with younger people,” she said.

“One of the things that came out of the work was that often the instructions are not clear, and that people were often learning about how to actually use them from their children and grandchildren.”

The doctor added: “Cost, usefulness and ease of use were cited as the main factors affecting technology purchase.

“All but one of the Sheffield group were happy to use computer-based technology. One person said she was not willing to, as she was too busy and would get addicted to it.

“The groups were very enthusiastic about being given the opportunity to discuss their preferences around technology and their health in particular and felt that older adults should be better represented on design panels.”