Arlind Reuter – Open Lab Newcastle University, UK

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

The definition of the term “older adults” can be manifold and complex depending on the context, with different age variables being used across different research fields. Examples are chronological age, which defines the numbers of years lived, biological age, which is used to describe the “individual’s present position with respect to his or her potential life-span” or social and psychological factors, such as societal roles [1]. In medical sciences, the term “older adults” tends to include people over the age of 65. However, the diversity of people over 65 regarding health status is acknowledged, leading some researchers to adopt measures of frailty as an alternative to chronological age [5].

My research draws attention to the importance of perceived and subjective age. These variables encompass people’s self-perceptions in terms of reference age groups [1]. All participants in my project are self-defining older adults, as they are part of an older people’s organisation and engage in public activities in which they promote older people’s interests. Critiquing the strong homogenous and techno-solutionist focus on ageing in HCI research [8], I agree with Righi et al. 2017 that we should change our focus from age-related variables (such as defining older adults as people over 65) and the focus of designing for older adults towards acknowledging diversity in later life [7] and promoting civic participation. This means moving beyond techno-solutionist designs that try and help solve the perceived burden of old age [8] and take on human-centred approaches that have a day-to-day impact on the use of technologies and practical use for the communities involved.

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

In ageing societies, the importance of including ageing research in the HCI context becomes apparent: through better health standards and improved living conditions, life expectancy is constantly rising as society becomes increasingly digitalised. Even though older adults will increasingly become consumers of new technological devices as time progresses, most technologies that emerge from HCI in an ageing context are assistive technologies [8]. We as researchers need to be aware of the challenges that arise from this homogenous view in HCI ageing research. We should focus instead on supporting older adults and their community practices whilst being inclusive of everyone. In my view, one of the main challenges for HCI ageing research is looking at both older adults who benefit from assistive later life technologies, as well as older adults who want to make use of technologies as part of their civic participation. We should also consider how to combine the two viewpoints. Broadening the HCI ageing research agenda to addressing diversity in later life will challenge existing negative stereotypes on ageing in the CHI community [8] and open up a potential for new engagements between researchers and communities, as opposed to solely focusing on older adults as a user group of technologies.

What themes have you explored in your work?

My PhD project addresses community and digital media technologies as a means to facilitate civic participation in later life. While the concept of using media for civic participation has been widely researched for younger people (e.g. [2,6]), there are few projects exploring how older adults make positive use of those technologies to have a voice in their communities. I work in collaboration with a local older people’s organisation and their Community Radio group to explore workflow structures and ways of their content-creation. For this community group, different themes in their media production and within the use of technologies are of importance:

social connectedness: the production of the community radio show functions as a “social hub” for the group to be connected and check in with each other

audience engagement: focusing on the strong civic participatory output of being of service to their community and creating content, that resonates with older adults across the city

learning: the motivation to improve the production workflow and enjoy learning new skills in later life

Some of these themes have been reflected in other projects (e.g. audience engagement and social connectedness [3]) and seem to have an overarching relevance for older adults as content-creators in media.

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

The overall approach to my project methodology is Participatory Action Research (PAR), to support an inclusive and democratic process of researching with my local collaborators. Through using PAR, I ensure that the work we do has a “real” impact on the people involved and their community. Embedding myself as part of the team acknowledges the fact that we are all experts in our own life experience and considers the reciprocity between me as a researcher and the collaborating organisation. As a result, I have been able to learn a lot from my collaborators. Using workshops to work closely on identifying design spaces and exploring design ideas together has helped me to be flexible in my ideas of what the project “should be” and to design with my collaborators as opposed to for them. In addition to using workshops as a space for discussion, we are in a constant conversation about the design, whether it works or not and things that have to be improved (which can also include accessibility issues). I have also used semi-structured interviews as a way to seek feedback from users, which generates more personal insights on people’s relationship with a technology. However, the main feedback is gathered “casually” as part of conversations during training and user sessions.

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

One main aspect of ageing that will continue to be of relevance in the future is the issue of loneliness in later life. Even though HCI research has picked up on the issue and tries to implement technologies for social connectedness as a solution, the problem needs to be explored in more detail. To equate loneliness with social isolation is a dangerous assumption, as the former is a multidimensional phenomenon and a subjective feeling, characterised as a cognitive dissonance between a person’s actual and desired social relations [4], while the latter describes a lack of social relations. A challenge that technology research has to address is reducing this mismatch of a person’s desired relations and the ones they have, in addition to continue targeting social isolation – however being aware that both issues can be related, but don’t have to be. Additionally, it will be a challenge to consider the diversity of perceptions in loneliness in the development of new technologies. Even though communication technologies might help some people to feel more connected to their family/friends, it can also result in an increase in loneliness in others. HCI ageing research needs become more sensitive to the characteristics of a heterogeneous older population, which can be a challenge if we continue to use stereotypes and design for older adults as a user group.

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

Considering civic and social participation as well as community interactions as part of the development for future technologies can support older adults in having their voices heard and taking on an active role in society. I think it is important that older adults don’t “become invisible” in our societies and across cities. Focusing on co-design processes as well as all participatory methods can help develop platforms and create ways for older adults to share their experiences and advocate for older people’s rights. Additionally, if we as researchers take on human-centred research and design approaches, the design process itself can be a positive experience and contribute to foster (intergenerational) relationships through our work. It is important that we aim to make all future technologies as accessible as possible to ensure that they can be used by many people.

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

I am particularly interested in the theme building and theme exploration activities, which I hope will contribute to an overview for the HCI ageing research agenda that goes beyond accessibility towards acknowledging a diverse and heterogeneous population of older adults. I hope that by sharing my ideas with other researchers I can get new angles and inspirations for my PhD project and raise my awareness of themes and problems that might have not emerged in my research. I would therefore appreciate space for discussions as well as taking enough time to summarise different parts of the workshop so we can take away an overview of the themes we have developed.

Bibliography

Arlind Reuter, Tom Bartindale, Kellie Morrissey, Thomas Scharf, and Jennifer Liddle. 2019. Older Voices: Supporting Community Radio Production for Civic Participation in Later Life. In CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems Proceedings (CHI 2019), May 4–9, 2019, Glasgow, Scotland UK. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 13 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300664

References

  1. Benny Barak and Leon G Schiffman. 1981. Cognitive age: A nonchronological age variable. ACR North American Advances.
  2. W Lance Bennett. 2008. Civic life online: Learning how digital media can engage youth. Mit Press.
  3. Robin Brewer and Anne Marie Piper. 2016. “Tell It Like It Really Is”: A Case of Online Content Creation and Sharing Among Older Adult Bloggers. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’16), 5529–5542. https://doi.org/10.1145/2858036.2858379
  4. Jenny de Jong Gierveld. 1998. A review of loneliness: concept and definitions, determinants and consequences. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology 8, 1: S0959259898008090. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0959259898008090
  5. NHS UK. Improving Care for Older People. Retrieved January 9, 2018 from https://www.england.nhs.uk/ourwork/clinical-policy/older-people/improving-care-for- older-people/
  6. Howard Rheingold. 2008. Using participatory media and public voice to encourage civic engagement. Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth, December 2005: 97–118. https://doi.org/10.1162/dmal.9780262524827.097
  7. Valeria Righi, Sergio Sayago, and Josep Blat. 2017. When we talk about older people in HCI, who are we talking about? Towards a ‘turn to community’ in the design of technologies for a growing ageing population. International Journal of Human Computer Studies 108, June: 15–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2017.06.005
  8. John Vines, Gary Pritchard, Peter Wright, and Patrick Olivier. 2015. An Age-Old Problem: Examining the Discourses of Ageing in HCI and Strategies for Future Research. Tochi 22, 1: 1–27. https://doi.org/10.1145/2696867