Melissa Liu – University of Washington, USA

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

Besides the requisite projections that begin innumerable articles of large increases in older adult populations demonstrating timeliness and importance of research in the area, older adults are inherently unique from other age groups or life phases by categorical definition.

In the US, the history of the standardization and widespread adoption of chronological age in autobiographical narrative is linked to the bureaucratic need for an efficient system to assess Civil War pensions (Treas). Social Security demarcates sixty-five years as the age of eligibility. Sixty-five means senior citizenship for bureaucracy. In popular discourse, sixty-five is the traditional marker that begins old/er age. However, people understand age is not what it used to be. When I recently picked up a pamphlet on senior driving at the Department of Motor Vehicles, an employee who works with many older adults offhandedly mentioned, “Of course, what even is ‘senior’ these days? Fifty is the new sixty-five.” By the way, when the Social Security program began in 1935, the average lifespan was sixty-one years (Escamilla).

Ideas of old age as different and separate are found in older biomedically-based life cycle models. Aging misconceptions, such as older age’s conflation with disability, can be seen in traditional life cycle models. However, biologists have argued since the early twentieth century for the de-standardization of chronological age.

Currently, researchers from biomedicine and social sciences are addressing longer lives by adapting models of age. This is seen in such categories as the Third Age and the young-old. Anthropologist Mary Catherine-Bateson’s model is based of Erik Erikson’s and but uses life events as markers of transitioning to another life phase. In this model, the transition to Adulthood II begins with such events as retirement (Bateson).

And foundational to this history of age is the measurement of chronological age being predicated on linear temporality and distinct time segments that are not universal to all societies.

There is much imaginative work and age segregation that sustains the ideology of aging in the US.

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

1) Aging is interesting to research because the more I learn about it, the less it exists. From my fieldwork experiences and research on scholarly articles, I am now playing with the idea that aging does not really exist. That is, older age concretely exists to outsiders but it disappears or becomes more gossamer once a person becomes an inside member.

The above leads to this: I learn more about myself the more I conduct research with older adults: my own biases, my own internalized ageism, my own misperceptions. This is also highly interesting.

Research on ageism shows it to be incredibly widespread but without moral charge like other -isms (e.g., racism, sexism). This makes it both necessary and an opportune space for researchers to conduct autoethnographic research on ageism as part of designing for older adults. The ability of HCI researchers focusing on aging to speak to the wider CHI community on pressing social issues including and related to aging is important.

Critical gerontechnology literature from such disciplines as Social Work and HCI repeatedly call for meaningful participation of older adults throughout the design process and describe the myriad ways that designers are seriously and negatively affecting the lives of older adults (Dotolo, Petros, Berridge; Neven; Lindsay, et al.).

2) An important question regarding design and older adults concerns cumulative dis/advantage (CAD) and life course studies. Some sociological researchers call for the entire life course to be researched to fully understand older age. This is partly due to the idea of cumulative dis/advantage that “[describes the] processes by which the effects of early economic, educational, and other advantages can cumulate over the life course” (Crystal, Shea, Reyes). A large glut of factors affect older age: early educational achievement, school quality, neighborhood poverty, income distribution, income inequality itself, training opportunities, pension benefits, and it goes on. Regarding gerontechnology, who is actually being designed for? With regards to CAD, who benefits? Which older adults are excluded in the minds of researchers, throughout the research process, from product circulation? How does a design strive to not amplify inequality of individuals within an older generational cohort?

A certain “diversity” of unequal aging experiences emerges when looking at cumulative dis/advantage from an individual’s life in relation to social determinants of health. Who even gets to age? Researchers in HCI focusing on older adults are in the unique position to speak to the wider HCI community about the challenge of taking seriously the diversity of aging in relation to intersectionality. By working to truly understand heterogeneity in aging, HCI researchers working on aging would be able to extend their conversations to such issues as racism, sexism, and income inequality in relation to digital technology rather than merely dive blindly into an “untapped market” with good intentions.

3) Researchers need to meet older adults where they are at. “Over 25 million Americans aged 60+ […live…] at or below 250% of the federal poverty level” (NCOA). Will HCI researchers focusing on older adults exacerbate, maintain, or help to alleviate the problem?

Professor Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote in his Statement on Visit to the US that “[the] United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty” (2017).

And in the United Kingdom, the number of older adults sleeping rough more than doubled between 2010 and 2015 (Centre for Policy on Aging).

Again: Will HCI researchers focusing on older adults exacerbate, maintain, or help to alleviate the problem?

What themes have you explored in your work?

  1. Ageism in Researcher and Research
  2. Diversity of Aging
  3. Intersubjective Personhood; design and policies as care practice (digital technology, but also homes, built environments, age-friendly cities)
  4. Alternative Aging Models, Experimental Temporalities
  5. Being in Service of Older Adults as a Researcher

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

  1. Teaching a Design Class: I taught a twelve-week class guiding a group of older adults living in affordable housing in California through a design process of Research/Analysis—>Ideation—>Prototype—>Review/Assessment. Part of the course’s success occurred by seriously listening to the students and adapting lesson plans to integrate their needs. This meant altering the course to be able to hold the semi-disparate students’ goals and uses of the course with my own. Students felt accomplished at the conclusion of the class and saw how the design process could be adapted for other areas of their life.
  2. Charrette: As part of the class. Students quickly understood and connected ideas.
  3. Participant Observation: I am gaining an understanding of older adult technology use through long term engagement with multiple groups of older adults in their daily lives. The slow aspect provides rich, nuanced data. This long term engagement works for understanding people beyond the channels dictated by researchers.
  4. Semi-structured Interviews: Coupled with participant observation, open-ended interviews provide opportunities for the researcher to understand older adults how they wish to be understood.
  5. Probes: I am interested in using probes as a means for older adults to respond to and surprise researchers (Gaver).
  6. Design Anthropology interventions: The challenge is working on an anthropologist’s budget.

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

I believe the workshop demonstrates the challenge of creating spaces for older adults to speak for themselves and to be seriously listened to.

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

The question is interesting because it includes both envisioning futures for and making applications that afford and limit certain possible futures for older adults. I assume it is “for” older adults because of the tech industry’s notorious ageism (also stated in numerous critical gerontechnology articles).

I would like to see researchers do more than include older adults in their projects; I would like to see researchers demonstrate learning from older adults. How might technology support older adults in deeply envisioning their own futures? Who is excluded from imagining? How might design help ease the inequality of aging throughout the life course? In what ways can researchers be more accountable to older adults, to their fields, and to society for their own ageism?

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

I hope to create cross-disciplinary discussion on research and design about/of/for/with older adults. Collaborative ventures outside of the workshop are of interest.


Mary Catherine Bateson. Changes in the Life Course: Strengths and Stages. In Transitions & Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course. Caitrin Lynch, Jason Danely (Eds.) Berghahn Books, New York, Oxford 2015[2013].

Centre for Policy on Aging. Diversity in Older Age – Older homelessness. 2017. Retrieved December 31, 2018 from

Stephen Crystal, Dennis G. Shea, Adriana M. Reyes. Cumulative Advantage, Cumulative Disadvantage, and Evolving Patterns of Late-Life Inequality. Gerontologist 57, 5 (2017), 910-920.

Danae Dotolo, Ryan Petros, Clara Berridge. A Hard Pill to Swallow: Ethical Problems of Digital Medication. Social Work 63,4 (2018):370-2.

Javier Escamilla. The Social Security Dilemma. Retrieved December 31, 2018 from

William Gaver. 2001. The Presence Project. Royal College of Art, United Kingrom.

Stephen Lindsay, Daniel Jackson, Cas Ladha, Karim Ladha, Katie Brittain, Patrick Olivier. Empathy, Participatory Design and People with Dementia. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’12), 521-530.

National Council on Aging. Economic Security of Seniors. Retrieved December 31, 2018 from

Louis Neven. By Any Means? Questioning the Link Between Gerontechnological Innovation and Older People’s Wish to Live at Home. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 93, (2014), 32-43.

Judith Treas. 2009. Age in Standards and Standards for Age: Institutionalizing Chronological Age as Biographical Necessity. In Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying, and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life. Martha Lampland and Susan Leigh Star (Eds.) Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 65-87.