Dr. Marén Schorch

University of Siegen, Germany

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

From our point of view, older adults are as unique as adults in many other stages of life, but unfortunately, the diversity or individuality of older adults is often ignored; instead, they are regarded as one group (“the elderly”). From an academic perspective, “older age” can be defined in many ways and is often based upon criteria such as the differentiation in age cohorts, generations, employment status etc.. In our study, we set the inclusion criteria as biological age (from the age of sixty-years) and employment status (as being retired). One major contextual factor in our study was that the older participants were full-time, untrained caregivers of their respective spouses. Our caregivers were aged between sixty and eighty-five years old, most of them in their late sixties. For many of them, the phase of retirement respectively older age turned out to be very different from the one they had imaged or planned for. Often quite suddenly, they had to become a fulltime caregiver and had to answer to the multiple needs of the sick relative 24/7, some of them had to move from their houses to smaller, adjusted apartments or moved to their children (which also creates new conditions and shapes the context for their everyday life). Many plans like traveling, taking up old or new spare time activities, spending more time with friends etc. had to be cancelled or postponed. And most of the older caregivers had not only to face the changes of her/his own body, cognitive system, etc. due to their age, but cope with the additional physical, psychological and emotional challenges of caregiving. Furthermore, we could observe major transformations in the relationships between the older couples when one of them became chronically sick. All those contextual aspects have to be taken into consideration when designing for and with such a group of participants.

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

First, worldwide, the demographic changes go along with a huge and constantly increasing number of older adults – so, we focus on a significant prospective user group. Second, we think that it is important to pay attention to the diverse images of aging, to perceive aging as a process – rather than a fixed stage in life – and to figure out how this diversity and processuality can correspond in innovative IT design. We often come across rather simplified concepts of older age on the meta level in politics, media etc., on the meso level in organizations or institutions that deal with the “group” of older adults and even on the micro level when observing the way how people create and/or reproduce stereotypes of older adults in everyday life situations. For instance, we find images such as the one of the “silver surfer”, referring to older adults with a stable physical and mental health, active and enjoying the retirement phase, being open minded for new experiences, for instance also in the field the IT adaptation and development. On the contrary, we also find images of older adults with a rather declining physical and cognitive health, grown lonely or with less social networks and not interested in technologies and a huge variety of images in-between those stereotypes. Such simplified concepts of aging are present in many of our co-design IT projects with older participants. Third, diversity and complexity also refers to the different biographical backgrounds and experiences of the participants as well as their varying sets of resources: their economic, cultural (mainly educational) and social capital in the sense of Bourdieu (1986) and Granovetter (1973). Dealing with those aspects formulates a bunch of new research topics within the proposed framework. Last, but not least, we recognized that it is actually hard work, a real, but rewarding challenge to co-design with and for older adults. Based on experiences in multiple IT design projects with older participants, we know that the diversity of them, also in relation to their knowledge and interest in IT related work, needs more attention all along the design processes (like including phases of adaptation, learning etc.). Paying attention to the complexity of that future user group can be largely beneficial for the whole community.

What themes have you explored in your work?

  1. As mentioned above: “There is no such thing as the elderly user”, referring to the heterogeneity of the user group.
  2. We explored diverse images of aging, including a huge variety of self-images and imposed images from different involved stakeholders in the respective contexts that are often not matching. Making those images more explicit and reflecting them, is an important step in order to overcome simple stereotypes, also in IT design projects (such as just enlarging the buttons or fonts).
  3. We recognized that aging is a process instead of a fixed stage in life – and that paying attention to this constant changes is a huge task for IT designers as well.
  4. With particular respect to older caregivers, we observed the many challenges for them, how demanding the learning of another social role is and how the changes of their former lives and routines shape their self-images in respect to their aging, but also their everyday life in general.

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

We used mixed methods approaches, including a wide range of qualitative methods from the social sciences and ethnography (participant observation, different forms of interviewing, analyzing pictures and documents), cultural probes, paper based mockups, technical prototypes and also quantitative methods (questionnaires). We realized the observation in the homes of the participants, but also carried out multiple workshop sessions in different places, mostly combined with having tea/coffee and cake together (which was always a success). As we were trained in qualitative methods, especially in ethnography in sensitive settings, the qualitative study was really working very well – but it took a very very long time to find people who agreed to participate in our study which is understandable when considering their care work. So, establishing those relationship for a long time cooperation was a time consuming effort. I’m gladly reporting about more details in the workshop. But just to mention also a negative experience: All of our participants were not fond of the questionnaires because of their bad experiences with questionnaires from the health insurance. So, just mentioning them was a problem at first, but then I explained question by question and that helped in the end.

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

As mentioned above, I guess that the general demographic change and shift towards a rapidly growing number of older adults worldwide will be a major challenge to deal with for many decades to come. Especially because we’ll also have to face the decline of resources: The resources to support older adults in many ways (not just when they are in need of care), appropriate living conditions that reflect on their own preferences, mobility support, financial aid, etc.. The (social, geographical, job etc.) mobility of younger generations have to be balanced with the needs of the older adults of the families – if there is a commitment in a family about that. But there is also a huge number of older adults who do not have a family or partners or friends or who have no relationship to them anymore and who also require help. Not to speak more concretely of the differences between cultural images of aging, religious, ethnic etc. demands and traditions that also play a role in the understanding of and dealing with that stage in life. We still got a long way to go!

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

We really hope that future technologies will reflect on the diversity of the individual backgrounds, preferences, set of available (financial, cultural, social, timely etc.) resources, needs and (dis-)abilities of older adults. So, hopefully, applications will be more flexibly designed, but also not infantilize the older users (with just bigger buttons etc.). Besides, future older generations will most likely be more used to applications and the omnipresence of IT devices in everyday life as they “aged” with them.

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

I gained a deep insights into multiple IT design projects with older adults. And despite one, most of them were “national” projects, based in Germany. So, besides literature reviews, I know little about the experiences in other cultural contexts and countries. I am really interested in that. And besides, also in further experiences in dealing with sensitive situations in the co-design process with older adults (for instance in respect to leaving the field after the project, dealing with diverse expectations, dealing with topics such as sickness, dying etc.).


Marén Schorch, Lin Wan, David Randall, Volker Wulf (2016): Designing for Those who are Overlooked. Insider Perspectives on Care Practices and Cooperative Work of Elderly Informal Caregivers, Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing CSCW ’16, New York, New York, USA: ACM Press, p. 785-797.

Susanne Hensely-Schinkinger, Marén Schorch, Hilda Tellioglu (2018): Using Cultural Probes in the Sensitive Research Setting of Informal Caregiving. A Case Study. In i-com – Journal of Interactive Media (i-com) 17(2): 103–117.

Katja Neureiter, Claudia Müller, Markus Garschall, Marén Schorch, Lex van Velsen and Dominik Hornung (2016): Challenges and experiences in designing for an ageing society. Reflecting on concepts of age(ing) and communicating practices. In: Proceedings of the COOP 2016 – Symposium on challenges and experiences in designing for an ageing society, International Reports on Socio-Informatics volume 13 (issue 3) 2016, Bonn: IISI – International Institute for Socio-Informatics 2016, p. 5-20.