Amanda Lazar – University of Maryland, College Park, USA

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

It is tricky to try to define older adults. Some people argue that it is not a meaningful designation at all, as the term struggles to group people who can be more than four decades apart in age with entirely different historical contexts and life experiences. Further, people actually get more different as they age, rather than more similar. And older adults differ radically in terms of their attitudes, health, cognitive or physical functioning, the way they spend their time, and, importantly, their technology use – even when linked by being born in the same time period.

At the same time, defining a group of people by their age has a clear utility to me, in part because I do find meaningful elements in what it means to be an ‘older adult.’ I describe two of these elements, which each have significant room to explore within HCI, below:

Life stage: Although older adults are at diverse places in their lives, there are certain shared attributes that many have. They may have several generations of children (i.e. grand children or great grandchildren), meaning their family structures are often different (with implications for technology use for care- for others or for themselves- and communication). They may be post-work, and therefore have different constraints on their time and, importantly, different exposure to technology than younger people. They may have similar experiences in terms of having peers begin to pass away, have experienced greater accumulated loss and joy over time. A number of theories about aging consider these experiences and the different emotional orientation older people may have.

Societal attitudes towards aging: Even if it is hard to define a core set of physical or emotional characteristics that older adults possess, I would argue that older adults are linked in the negative attitudes many people have towards aging and what it means to be an older adult. For example, in the US there are strong anti-aging sentiments that appear in advertisements (“fight aging with this serum”) to birthday cards (“Over the hill”) to descriptions of political and celebrity figures (“take away his car keys”). Research has shown that these attitudes concretely impact the way people age (for example, people who hold worse attitudes towards aging experience greater physical and cognitive changes). As the HCI community is pointing out, these attitudes also affect the ways that technologies are designed for older people and how they are received by them.

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

There are so many interesting, important things about aging as an area of research. Many of us hope to live into old age, and to use technology as we age. And age diversity can be as important a factor to consider as other forms of diversity in terms of bringing people with different kinds of experiences to contribute to research and design, spurring the need to create design methods that work for older people and intergenerational groups.

One of the most significant challenges to me is that aging research sometimes is seen as very separate from other kinds of work in HCI, and that any work on aging is associated with health or accessibility even when it has nothing to do with those topics.

What themes have you explored in your work?

I have examined the material, social, and societal context of technology use by older adults.

  • Material Context My work has been influenced by the idea that the physical environment, including the tools that researchers introduce, participate in the creation of agency. In studying art therapy, I have learned about the ways that a carefully selected and arranged material workspace can support creative expression by people with dementia. A current project investigates the material experiences thatare important for different contexts, from co-designing home technologies to interacting with nature.
  • Social Context In examining different technologies, from robotic pets to digital avatars, I have found that older people often want to use technology to connect to others – not to than replace them. At the same time, some social technologies require work that is not always welcome, especially at home (e.g. being gracious after a long day). And, a question I ask in much of my research is what design opportunities arise when viewing topics that have been considered through the lens of biomedical research – such as menopause and the aging experience more broadly – as social experiences?
  • Societal Context I am particularly interested societal attitudes towards aging, and the ways that literature points out that these attitudes influence the ways technologies are designed and adopted. I have examined how older people counter negative attitudes towards aging online and ways technology can challenge stigma associated with cognitive impairment. In a current project, I am examining how technology supports people with dementia to share their experiences with a broad audience, and quantifying the impact this has on those that engage with this content. One clear guideline that has come out of this direction of research is recognizing that technology that is stigmatizing will not be used unless there is truly no other choice for the individual, and that there are many different ways that something can be stigmatizing – from the discourse of media and ads, to who else uses the technology (“mainstream” vs. people older than them in the building).

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

I have used a number of methods, including co-design, interviews, focus groups, diary studies, and surveys. I have found focus groups work particularly well to get critical feedback on ideas or technology more broadly – something that people have been a little more hesitant to share in interviews. Though I sometimes use standardized instruments alongside my qualitative work, I find that my sample sizes are so small that it is difficult to use them in a meaningful way aside from establishing a ‘baseline.’

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

I have sometimes heard people say that challenges that aging people have with technology will end as soon as the older generation passes away, as younger people are exposed to so much technology so they will surely be tech-savvy as they age. This neglects, though, factors such as the different motivations and values older people may have that are discussed in the call for this workshop, as well as the fact that if the trend of mainstream technology being produced by younger people, for younger people, then people will continue to be excluded as technology inevitably progresses and shifts. I think that the key part to overcoming these challenges will be including diverse older adults in the design of any new technology- but not just as participants in the design process, also as managers, designers, marketing executives, and programmers.

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

While there is a strong direction of research on automating companionship, I hope that future technologies will lead to rich peer, family, and intergenerational communication for older adults.

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

I am interested in contributing to and gaining concrete approaches to designing for aging. I hope to gain an understanding of the commonalities between the aging research in all the different domains and cultural contexts of the workshop attendees, and what is specific to a particular domain and what is generalizable. I also am interested in gaining and contributing to a big picture understanding of current directions in aging HCI research.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

I don’t address this much in my answers above, but I work on technology for people with dementia, which brings up interesting challenges for technology design and design for aging more broadly for a couple reasons: 1) though not everyone experiences significant cognitive changes as they age, sometimes this assumption is made by technology designers 2) many older people do experience cognitive impairment, and technology does not currently fit their needs, and 3) negative attitudes towards aging that influence technology design are magnified when it comes to cognitive impairment.

Bibliography

Lazar A, Thompson HJ, Lin S-Y, Demiris G. Negotiating Relation Work with Telehealth Home Care Companionship Technologies that Support Aging in Place. Proceedings of the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW 2018)

Lazar A, Nguyen DH. Successful Leisure: Understanding Older Adults' Motivations to Engage in Leisure Activities. Proceedings of the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2017).

Lazar A, Diaz M, Brewer R, Kim C, Piper AM. Going Grey, Failure to Hire, and the Ick Factor: Analyzing How Older Bloggers Talk About Ageism. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (CSCW 2017).

Lazar A, Thompson H.J., Piper A.M., Demiris G. Rethinking the Design of Robotic Pets for Older Adults. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS 2016).