Jenny Waycott

The University of Melbourne, Australia

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

In Australia, “older adults” are typically defined as those aged over 65; this is when a person is eligible to receive funded aged care services and coincides with the typical age of retirement. Much of my work, however, focuses on people aged over 80. I find the use of an age cut-off for defining old age somewhat problematic: “over 65” covers a large age span and multiple generations. Until recently, for instance, I had two generations above me. Using an age cut-off, my parents and grandmothers were classified as “older adults” but there were significant differences between them in terms of their capacity and interest in using new technologies. Today, many people in their 60s (and even some in their 70s) care for ageing parents. It is helpful for researchers to specify which aspect of old age their work focuses on, rather using the term “older adult” to cover an unspecified group defined only by age.

With some exceptions, much of my recent work has focused on older adults who use aged care services (either residential aged care or home and community care services). This means my participants are often frail, with mobility constraints that limit their opportunities to engage in activities and experience the world around them. This does not, however, mean they have stopped living or that they are not interested in doing new things. In recent projects, aged care residents have expressed joy and pride when using new technologies such as virtual reality. They have been willing to critique the technologies we trial and appreciated the opportunity to express their opinions and contribute to technology research.

The older adults I have worked with have been lucky enough to have lived a long life; they have seven or more decades of life experiences that shape the person they are now. I once heard someone say that the time people are most similar other people of their generation is when they are newly born. As we grow and age, we accumulate different life experiences and become increasingly diverse in our preferences and attitudes. Age-related decline may create common ground among older people, but older adults are still unique individuals – often with fascinating life histories and experiences. As people reach advanced old age, however, their individual personalities and identities can sometimes become hidden; the world only sees them as “old”. For me, this hidden identity of older adults is one of the key challenges of old age, but also what makes research in this space interesting and worthwhile. Individual identities and experiences of ageing warrant more attention from researchers who sometimes, unfortunately, rely on stereotypes to define and characterize old age.

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

Older people have a lot to offer HCI research. They have experiences to draw from that enable them to critique and value new technologies in ways we might not expect. They are often willing to challenge researchers’ assumptions and to oppose the values embedded in our work, which can take our research into new directions. And when our research involves introducing technologies to older people who are frail and dependent on others for care and support, their experiences with the technology reveal how important an inclusive “design for all” philosophy is.

My research tends to focus on the design and use of technologies for social and emotional enrichment. The underlying motivation of this work is to improve people’s lives; to make a positive difference in the lives of people whose worlds have shrunk and who might be struggling to live with some of the challenges of ageing. This is rewarding; the aim is ultimately to help people. But it is also challenging because we must be open to the possibility that the technologies we are designing or evaluating are not wanted or needed, or that they do not work as expected. It can be difficult to manage expectations about how the technologies will work and the benefits they might bring. This challenge of managing expectations applies not only to older adults but to family members, friends and care providers. Different stakeholders may also have conflicting motivations and priorities for the research. Learning how to manage these different priorities can provide valuable lessons not only for ageing and technology research, but for other HCI research that involves collaborating with external partners.

What themes have you explored in your work?

The key themes in my work are:

  • Ethical issues associated with research involving the design/use of new technologies for social benefit in later life. Some of the issues that have arisen in my work include questions about who decides what is “good” for an older person (e.g., conflict between a care organization that wants to improve clients’ wellbeing through increased social connectedness, and aged care clients who want to be left alone). Other issues include managing relationships with participants and being aware that participants might experience new technologies, or the research process, as a burden.
  • The concept of enrichment: how can we design and use technologies such as social media, digital games, and virtual reality to enrich people’s lives? What does it mean to provide enrichment? Do these technologies just provide another form of entertainment or are there deeper positive outcomes available, if the technologies are designed and used effectively?
  • Social connectedness: what kinds of social connectedness are important and how can they be facilitated using new technologies? Are there instances when new technologies disrupt, rather than facilitate, a sense of connection to the world and to other people?

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

I use qualitative methods to focus on understanding individual experiences with technology. These methods can be labor-intensive but are valuable for providing rich insights. Through this process, I have collected many individual stories about people’s lives, needs, preferences, and their willingness to use technology for different purposes. My research often involves working closely with aged care providers. This collaboration is crucial for ensuring the research is conducted sensitively (tailored around the needs of different participants) but raises challenges. For example, access to research sites may be limited by staff time and availability and well-meaning staff can sometimes have different understandings about the research goals and procedures. Aged care staff act as gate-keepers who mediate the relationship between researchers and participants, so it is crucial that their goals are closely aligned with the research goals.

What aspects of aging, or what challenges in aging research, will continue to be relevant in decades to come, and why?

As more people live into their 90s and beyond – often living independently until they are well into advanced old age, our notions about ageing may need to evolve. I expect (hope) that there will be increasing recognition that there is great diversity in people’s experiences of ageing. In the technology and ageing research space, this may mean increasing openness to designing and deploying personalized technologies that respond to individual preferences and needs. However, I expect there will still be attempts to treat older adults as a homogenous group.

How will applications of the future differ from today for older adults?

It is always difficult to try to predict the future, especially when it comes to technology applications. I hope that in the future technologies will be increasingly used to support individual creativity and connectedness, and that privacy risks will become better managed and less prevalent.

What are you hoping to get out of attending this workshop?

It is a great opportunity to learn about other work that is being done in this area. I expect to benefit from the networking and conversations that I have with workshop participants.

Bibliography/ References

My publications are listed on my website:

They can also be found on my Google Scholar profile: