Anne Marie Piper

Northwestern University, USA

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

The wide diversity of lived experiences, values, and goals of older people makes design for aging an interesting topic to me. I think we become more and more different from one another as we age, yet so much research still focuses on “older adults” as a homogenous group. Because of this, I’ve found myself moving away from designing for “older adults” to designing for older adulthood and designing for the experience of aging. This shifts the focus from a population in which age demarcations may be cultural, contextual, and, at times, arbitrarily imposed to a focus on the experiences, transitions, and changes that we experience over the lifespan. We have learned a lot by attending to whether and how people identify as an older adult, listening to how some eschew the terms “senior” and “elder” as both unmeaningful and derogatory, and understanding why some centenarians may view everyone but themselves as old.

Why do you think aging is an interesting area to research?

Aging is personal. Each researcher brings different experiences, relationships, and values to bear on which questions they ask, how they approach their work, and their view of whether and how technology should be involved. Beyond this, stereotypes of what it means to be an older person and narratives around what it means to age ‘well’ add complexity to technology design that we are just now beginning to understand. There is a pressing need to understand the ways in which the experience of aging is co-evolving with technological advancement.

What themes have you explored in your work?

In addition to thinking about age-related stereotypes and our changing abilities over the lifespan, I have been particularly interested in what it means to age online – or grow older in the context of one’s online life and digital footprint. How do existing online technologies shape and influence the experience of aging? What’s the online future that we want for all people as we grow older? What does it mean to care for others (or receive care from others) in virtual spaces as our abilities change over time? Although we and others are starting to address these questions, we are still far from a comprehensive understanding of what it means to age online and how system design should reflect this.

What research methods have you used to engage older adults in the design process or otherwise elicit relevant design criteria?

In much of our work we interact directly with informants through interviews and field observations as well as analyzing online discourse. When looking to involve older people with significant cognitive impairment or limited verbal ability, however, we turn to collaboration with community and clinical partners at our field sites (e.g., activity directors, speech-language pathologists, art therapists). Collaboration with therapists in particular has been crucial for many of the projects we’ve worked on over the past decade. Not only do we learn from therapists’ ways of understanding behavior and engaging people in interaction, we learn from their ethical sensitives and understanding of power relations in order to shape our own research agenda.

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