Researchers at Florida State University are trying to encourage technology designers to bridge a digital divide that does not get as much attention as others – the technology gap that “threatens to turn senior citizens into second-class citizens." “The technology gap is a problem because technology, particularly computer and Internet technology, is becoming ubiquitous, and full participation in society becomes more difficult for those without such access,” said Neil Charness, professor of psychology at FSU. This technology gap can lead to a reduced quality of life or limit the ability of older adults to live independently.

While 46 percent of seniors over the age of 65 use cell phones, fewer use the internet, which precludes them from taking advantage of online commerce, communication and innovations like online banking.

Only 39 percent of adults between 65 and 74 use the internet, and that figure drops to less than a quarter (24 percent) for those over 74.

Because of declining cognitive processes, decreased memory and difficulties maintaining attention, it takes seniors twice as long as other adults to learn new technologies, say the researchers.

Issues with perception, motor skills and coordination also pose challenges to seniors, who are not helped by the ongoing trend in technology design to make everything smaller.

In order to close this technology gap, the FSU researchers recommend that designers focus on creating devices with simplified menus, large fonts and external noise reduction, and design websites that have high contrasts between background and text and that minimize scrolling.

The researchers are also positive on video games like Nintendo’s Brain Age that are designed to restore brain function, but with the caveat that this increased brain function is not enough to improve quality of life.

“There is limited but encouraging evidence that these so-called brain fitness software packages make a difference in improving some basic skills, but so far there is little evidence that they improve older adults’ quality of life or ability to live independently,” said Florida State assistant professor of psychology Walter Boot.

“That should be the measure of success in evaluating these programs,” Boot said.

By Mark Alvarez