The Importance of a Personal Touch in the Digital Age

Let’s expose a dirty little secret… many older adults aren’t comfortable using technology, and we aren’t doing enough to solve it. I bet anyone with older adults in their life can relate. Remote controls stop working, Wi-Fi drops, or the printer disconnects. I have so many personal stories of trying to help my loved ones get reestablished when something goes wrong, but that’s where we stop, mostly because of time, sometimes because of impatience, and often because my own know-how falls short. Technology can represent convenience and fun, but as we age, it can also mean safety, independence & connectedness (or not) – so helping those we love to feel confident using technology so they can “stop being a neophyte and join the 21st century” is critical – real member, true story.

When I joined The Smarter Service as the COO, I expected to get a clearer perspective on what devices are used by older adults (and why), what they like or don’t, how they purchase their technology, and how their use evolves as they age. And I am learning all of that. But I’ve learned something so much more important on this journey, and it’s the foundation for how The Smarter Service is building its business around our members. But these learnings aren’t limited to technology – if you serve older adults in any way, these learnings may help you too:

There are always snacks.

When I first started working with our members, there was a surprising learning… snacks. Cookies, grapes, cheese, iced tea, you name it, there are always snacks. It harkens back to a simpler time, when people took time to know one another, gave a few extra minutes tossing aside efficiency in favor of the relationship, and chatted. As I reflect on this, I’m realizing this part of our time with members is as important as technology support because you’re getting to know a person and learning how tech might help them. And when you look around at the solutions for technology today, the human touch is missing. This has been one of the most important and compelling parts of our service with our members – warming up for the work ahead, hearing a bit about the latest family story, maybe a funny anecdote about an issue they had with tech, or a success story they are proud of. It lets you get acclimated because…

Personalization matters.

There are a ton of articles and opinions on what kind of technology older adults should be using. For communities, there is a lot of chatter around “Resident Engagement Platforms,” service automation, and scheduling apps. For families, there’s lots of talk about fall detection, online banking, or medication management.  All useful tools and important to pay attention to.  But the fact is that technology is an incredibly personal choice, and it only works if you use it. What we’ve found is that older adults will not use technology they don’t understand, don’t relate to, don’t value, or isn’t easy to use – and each means different things to different people. The better you understand the needs of the user, the better able you are to support them using (and wanting to use) technology that will serve them rather than frustrate them.

They want to learn but also don’t want to burden.

One of the biggest fallacies I see is that older adults aren’t interested in technology, and that’s just not true. Are there people who aren’t interested in learning tech? You bet, but that’s not an age thing, that’s a human thing. I’ve found most people I’ve encountered want to use tech, but on their terms (see personalization). But honestly, it’s hard to find help – and it’s even harder if it’s not a simple fix. The most common thing we hear from new members is “I don’t want to bug the kids with this” and “My grandson wants to fix it for me and move on, but I want to learn it.” This is an area where everyone is different. About 20% of our members are “do it for me” folks, but the other 80%? They want to learn, they want to discover and choose what is going to work for them. And when they’ve done that, they want someone they trust to support them. They aren’t getting that from the self-service automated world we live in today – so there are two options, find another solution, or give up entirely. And giving up isn’t an option because the digitized world isn’t slowing down.

Retain Independence and Thrive.

In our work with members today, technology has split itself into two main categories: The technology we want (our smartphones, our TVs, wearables, and the like) vs. the technology that’s done to us (our automobiles, cashless payments, telehealth & self-service environments to check ourselves out and in). Technology isn’t native to older adults. I’m sitting with my mother-in-law right now going over how to log into her computer, and it’s not simple for her. It takes practice and redundancy to truly get it.  Learning these seemingly simple skills helps her build confidence and allows me to introduce new things into her environment. In fact, we just unboxed her Alexa Show – which has been in a drawer for 2-years. Because now she’s willing to try it with a little bit of help and encouragement. And the sky’s the limit from there as she finds her technology swagger.

Wearables, home automation, Smart Cities, ChatGPT, Telemedicine… This isn’t the Jetsons anymore; it’s real, and it’s a world that our loved ones must navigate if they want to stay at home longer and retain their independence. In an increasingly digital world, we owe it to older adults to provide them the help navigating the technology they want, in addition to the things they have to. Smarter is that solution.

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