The Important Opportunity Missed in “Disrupt Aging”

Disrupt AgingDisrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age by Jo Ann Jenkins

Before I step into my concerns I want to be very clear about something: this is an excellent book.

The concept of what it means to “age” is rapidly changing. To quote the book:

Today most of us enjoy better health and a longer life than the wealthiest people in the wealthiest countries did just a century ago.

That’s an understatement. Life expectancy is close to doubling what it once was.

What this means that that we need to revisit what impact that longer life expectancy will have on each of us as aging individuals, as well as on all aspects of society.

Disrupt Aging tackles important topics ranging from our own identities as we age, to the practical matters of health care and preparation, financial care and preparation, and more.

It’s an important book and I encourage all to read it, think about it, and discuss it with others.

But because it is an important book, that it missed and almost misrepresents a topic I care deeply about, I have to share at least one reservation.

Unfortunately exactly how seniors are interacting with modern technology is, in my opinion, glossed over with an overly rosy view.

The darker side of technology and aging

In my role as a provider of consumer-level technical support I hear from a broad cross section of the population.

As it turns out my audience is heavily weighted to the “over fifty” crowd – the very audience that Ms. Jenkins discusses in her book; the very audience that is AARP. I’d estimate that fully two thirds of the million visitors to each month meet this criteria.

Based on what I hear almost every day, when it comes to technology things are not quite as rosy as Ms. Jenkins would portray.

Even though those of us over fifty are often perceived to be technophobic, we are the first adult tech-savvy generation. We grew up inspired by technology.

Sometimes the perception accurately reflects reality, more than we might hope for.

While we may be the first “adult tech-savvy generation”, and while we might be “inspired” by it, the characterization implies significantly more comfort with technology than I experience in the correspondence I see almost daily.

While a large portion certainly are tech-savvy and happy to embrace the technologies of the day, (I certainly count myself as part of that group), there are many more that are merely tech-tolerant at best. In fact, I’d go so far to say that significant portions of the population would be more accurately classified as “tech-wary” or even “tech-frustrated”.

And yes, naturally, there is a large portion that for a variety of reasons end up quite accurately being classified as technophobic.

And all those portions are simply too large.

We shouldn’t let the fact that there are many who embrace technology blind us to the fact that there are significant numbers who do not, or can not.

Technology is becoming too important.

Barriers to acceptance

Whenever I ask about what aspects of technology cause the most grief, there’s a single, common thread that comes back.


For some, it’s the sheer pace of change and the difficulty keeping up with it all. For some it’s that there’s any change at all. In both cases I counsel that change is an important part of what’s brought us the many marvels we now take for granted. Perhaps more importantly it’s not going to stop, and as a result a better approach might be to change how we view change; taking a position of acceptance, choice, and growth rather than frustrated resistance.

However a subset of change resistance isn’t alleviated by a change in personal mind set. That resistance is due very simply to not understanding the benefits of a particular change. Not understanding the “why” is, perhaps, the single biggest obstacle to accepting the change we’re faced with.

“Change for the sake of change” is a phase I hear often, and not in a positive context. “What I had before worked, and now it doesn’t” is a common refrain. “Why did they change something that was working just fine?” usually follows.

Even though we might not agree with it, simply understanding why change is happening at an accessible and understandable level is sometimes enough to remove stubborn walls of resistance.

Unfortunately understanding otherwise inexplicable change isn’t the only barrier.

For one example, current trends in design seem to favor low contrast color schemes, posing a problem to those with even moderately aging eyesight. All too often alternatives are buried, if present at all. Often the only option is an exceptionally harsh high-contrast approach designed for the severely sight impaired that’s simply overkill when something as simple as a slightly larger font or different color choice might make all the difference.

Another example: smooth touch screens require an amount of fine motor skills that, quite honestly, sometimes evades even the most agile. Add any kind of essential tremor to the equation and an entire class of devices falls into a category of complete uselessness.

Finally, much of today’s technology makes the assumption that most will learn by using or experimenting, and come with little to no reference documentation or resources for assistance in plain English. Not everyone learns the same way, particularly those who were brought up on a lifetime’s experience of being able to reference resources at hand. Unfamiliar ways of approaching technology without any assistance at all pose a critical barrier to even getting started.

The list goes on.

The importance can’t be overstated

According to one study, in 2014 96 percent of Americans with Internet access used it to look up health information.

Part of that I’m sure is convenience. To those connected and comfortable there’s a wealth of information just a few keystrokes away.

More troubling is that there are now vast amounts of information – often critical information – that are now pragmatically provided only online or using some form of newer technology.

The ability to access and interact with modern technologies is no longer a luxury, it’s a requirement. A requirement that, if not met, can have dramatic impact on an individual’s ability to connect with others, access important services, and in the worst case can have serious implications for fundamental health and wellbeing.

My personal aspiration is to empower individuals to embrace what technology has to offer. I want people to be able to do more, be more, and connect more, using all the opportunities today’s personal technology presents.

Anything less and even larger segments of our aging population will become disconnected and disenfranchised.

We need to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.

A way out

Three things need to happen.

First, we need to raise awareness that all is not as smooth as might thing when it comes to technology and our aging population. This is the opportunity missed by Disrupt Aging, and to some degree AARP as a whole.

Second, we need to lobby the technology providers and manufacturers to do more than just pay lip service to the importance of an aging populace, but actually design their products with that in mind. It might be as simple as providing additional options for different limitations, or it might be as simple as providing instructions rather than assuming that anything is easy to pick up by experimentation. It might be as simple as explaining “why”. AARP, specifically, is in a unique position to spearhead this discussion.

Finally, we need to support all users of technology, regardless of age, with information, resources, educational opportunities and more so that they can fully make use all of the opportunities available. This is where I spend much of my time, trying to explain or translate into plain English missing or otherwise complex instructions.

A crisis of confidence

What it all boils down to, in a word, is confidence.

Too many are left feeling anything but confident when it comes to technology.

By implying that the majority of seniors are tech savvy and comfortable with technology, and ignoring the vast numbers who are not, Disrupt Aging may contribute to this aspect of the problem. By not acknowledging their discomfort with technology many will be left feeling that it’s their own fault for not keeping up.

It’s not.

What I believe

It’s an exciting time to be alive.

I don’t want anyone to be left behind.

From the Ask Leo! about page:

I believe personal technology is key to humanity’s future. It has an amazing potential to empower individuals.

But it can also frustrate and intimidate.

I want to make technology work for you.

I want to replace that frustration and intimidation
with the amazement and wonder that I feel every day.

I want it to be a resource rather than a roadblock;
a valuable tool instead of a source of irritation.

I want personal technology to empower you so you can be a part of that amazing future.

I just want it to work, for you.

Particularly my peers in that over-50 crowd.

39 thoughts on “The Important Opportunity Missed in “Disrupt Aging””

  1. Excellent – well said. I agree 100%, and on a much smaller scale experience the same situations when assisting some ‘older’ technology users. Did I say older? Many are not much older than I. Confidence being one of the key words.

  2. Thanks, Leo. Well said. One of my fears, as an over-50 highly technologically savvy person, is that there won’t be people as tech savvy as I am among my support network as I age to the point where I need cognitive assistance with managing my life. I will still know enough to know that I want things done a certain way, but I won’t be able to do it myself. I have a bunch of websites, dozens of online accounts, dozens of email addresses, automatic billing for all kinds of things, an important database of all my genealogy research which should be kept in the family, an enormous library of digital book content that I’ve purchased over the years worth tens of thousands of dollars, etc. I will need to begin whittling these down to just what I can handle, and ideally what I can hand off to someone else when I can no longer do it. I have no offspring, so I don’t know who I’ll have to help me when I get old and mentally feeble. The prospect of how technology will fit into that phase of my life worries me. I hope it’s a long way off, and yet the longer off it is, the less I’ll understand the technology that is current at that future time.

    • I believe we’re in the same boat. Without kids, especially, that whole “who takes care of us when we’re older like we took care of our parents” issue extends to much more than just technology.

      • Leo and Rosie,

        I am in your boat. I have no kids and at 64 am the victim of Parkinson’s Disease. This includes cognitive problems and I’m very grateful for my computer which helps me communicate well. I’m also grateful for my many friends, which have become my family. They take me places, etc.

  3. This is excellent, Leo. I enjoy your newsletters as do many of other readers. I’m also happy to know that you and some of the people commenting are interested in making technology more user friendly.
    I write for people who are caring for their parents or spouses and most are tech literate to some degree. However, too many updates and other improvements are made without testing them on people who aren’t professional techs. This includes millions of otherwise happy boomers.
    Being left out of the changes leads to frustrated users. These people are not unintelligent. In fact they often have much to teach. Developers can benefit from their feedback.
    I believe that if developers tested their products with different age – and ability – groups, most upgrades and new designs would be more successful.
    I appreciate your mentioning this important topic

  4. Does your audience’s demographics mirror that of the overall population? Does the subset of your audience who contacts you reflect the demographics of your entire audience? If not, then be cautious about extrapolating.

    I’m in the 50+ set with more than 40 years of programming experience — and roughly the same number of years of answering general computer questions for others across a wide range of ages. My observation: Older folks are more interested in using technology to DO something than in just using technology. In other words, they don’t send text messages to people in the same room and they are less likely to spend hours shooting birds at pigs…

  5. Excellent point, Leo. As a “60-something” computer user, I worry about how technology is zooming past us, leaving us seemingly ignorant – which is far from the truth.

    • I agree with all of you!! most of us boomers over 60 have some tech savvy, but as mentioned – it changes so fast that we are “left behind” – either because we have no one to teach us the new stuff, we are beginning to lose some memory/motor skills, have beginnings of alzheimers/parkinsons or something else, or whatever. I was in on the first computers; thru the years have taught myself and learned from whomever; about 20 yrs ago, I taught a lady that was 20 yrs my senior, how to use a computer to write books – she was using a typewriter or the electric kind that came after (see, cant remember its name, haha). anyway, now she is 93 and cant remember the basics of what I taught her – she even wrote it down – but now due to dementia, she doesnt understand what she wrote – and she still WANTS to use the computer!!!!!
      so yes Leo, we’re all changing in our years, technology is passing us by, but for a lot of us, we’ll just keep doing what we know…….

  6. Years ago, it was determined by many that we, in the United States, were entering the ‘information age’ which we certainly have done. Those who don’t embrace technology are being left behind and wonder why their jobs all went somewhere else. I’m pretty good at fixing things, but if I couldn’t ‘google’ the simple phrase “How do I fix this item that won’t………” I don’t think that I’d get very far today. I have a lifetime friend who bought a laptop years ago and has even closed his internet access, being happy with just playing games on it – what a waste! I do, however, take issue with one point – I think that today’s tech “weenies” make changes to web sites, in part, to justify their continued employment rather than to improve the content or usability of the site.
    PS: I’ll be 79 next month!

    • Having worked in the industry I can assure you that they’re not making changes just for the sake of change, or to justify their existence. We might not agree with the changes we see, or understand why they were made, but that doesn’t mean they were made without legitimate purpose or intent.

      And … isn’t it wonderful that we can Google “How do I …”??? Just think of everything that implies in terms of infrastructure and knowledge to make it happen, as well as all it enables to those willing to give it a try. 🙂

      • The industry may have their own good reasons for a change but in particular your former employer does not seem to give a damn about the fact that every time the user interface and behaviour of Windows change, millions of corporate employees and private users around the world have to be re-trained at their expense.

        • exactly my sentiments.I was used to windows 7.Just downloaded windows 10 for free. Boy! big mistake I have to start all over again. Thanks Microsoft. Keep up the fantastic work you are doing Leo.
          Ps I.m only 83

  7. I’m not sure the speed in which technology changes is totally an “older generation” problem. I started teaching computer coding to elementary aged kids in the 1980’s (remember using cassette tapes to store data?) Now I write CSS. I sell digital products online using landing pages, autoresponders, cloud storage, a shopping cart, affiliate links, social media accounts, and enough hyperlinks to fill a page. None of my extended family nor friends understand it all, no matter their age. Even my kids at 19 and 25 don’t understand, or could maintain, the complex web of connections I have set up. If I die tomorrow, it would all be lost and the income stream would dry up because no one in my life knows how to do what I do. I think there is a real opportunity here for some smart entrepreneur to come up with a solution, some means to map out a persons digital life that could serve as a road map to untangle the web when a person passes away or become mentally incompetent.

  8. Excellent and exactly to the point 🙂
    As one who is both over 50 and who has spent her entire professional life
    using technology, I am still frustrated of knowing far too little in tech domains
    which remained out of my professional tasks or direct spheres of interest.
    I believe that the vast majority of people do possess the ability to cope with technology, if those who did launch the tech era had only invested more in proper training. And, yes, technology as a whole can be put much more strongly in the service of humans than it is put today . Unfortunately, much of today’s technology is too business-oriented, instead of being more life-oriented.
    I am also a single person, worrying about what will happen with me when the day will come in which I will not be able to cope anymore with the over-inflated “technology for the sake of technology”.
    Strangely as it might sound, I have never held a smartphone in my own hands …
    though, I worked as a senior software developer for tens of years …
    One technology field is not like the other, and something more should be done for putting the technology at the service of the masses, and not just for making a lot of money from over-priced phone calls, but by being able to promote significant life improvement and life security actions for people ….
    It gives me a good feeling if indeed, as Leo said above, “we are in the same boat” 🙂
    Let’s hope that reality will indeed confirm it :):)

  9. So true Leo.
    I am one of your over 80 readers, and I learn by doing with my IPad and smart phone,but would really appreciate help specifically for seniors.

  10. I am a retired electrical power engineering type. My work did not involve coding or control technology. The guru who did the control programming would put me down with his favorite statement: “It’s simple”. My response to that: “Anything is simple, once you know how”.

    At my age, I am apprehensive about the constant change and the lack of time to learn a change prior the next one. Thanks for the excellent work, Leo!

  11. Love the topic, you are right on point. I am in the 65+ group and have found myself dealing with ever changing tech all my life. As a second career I found myself a retail manager for a technology company. An interesting contrast between the older and younger groups that I ran into was the difference in reaction to when you push the button and it doesn’t work. The younger group was all too likely to say it’s broken, I want a new one. The older group was able to say I don’t understand it, teach me. Many of the people who we think understand the tech they use everyday are really just button pushers. Just look at the rate that 18 to 34 year-olds fall for scams of all types.


  12. My mother, who lived well into her eighties, felt that she had lived in the most exciting time in history. She told me that during her life she remembered fire engines drawn by horses and yet sat on her couch and watched a man walk on the moon. All from technology. I’m now in my seventies and sending this email with my Kindle. Live and learn.

  13. As an 82 year old person I like computers. It’s my everything machine. 7 years ago I met a man from Israel in a Skype English room and he asked me to help him learn English. I met with him on Skype almost every day for 6 years and he learned to speak and read English. It helped him with his job. He got promotions. Last year he and his wife and 12 year old child came to visit me for 3 weeks. My computer plays the Wurlitzer Organ, it adds lyrics to all my songs, it lets me fix my friends computers over the internet. I teach computers at my Senior Center. It’s keep me interested in living and the future.

  14. I have been ploughing a lonely furrow along the lines you suggest, running a website called Silverhairs, for 15 years. At least I had a UK honour, an MBE, last year for my efforts. But I am still struggling with change e.g Windows 10. So many changes to absorb. And I am even struggling to access my on-line savings, partly because I am deaf and find phoning them difficult. What chance someone with early stage dementia ? At least the comparatively simple tablet has come to the aid of many. But, even to use those, one has to overcome the obstacle of getting on line and committing to monthly payments before they know they will be able to cope. And my opinion of ‘smartphones’ for folks with failing vision, hearing and the trembling fingers you mention is even lower than most of the other technology available.
    I would certainly like to add a link to your excellent article on my site. because I think you have but many nails on their heads ! KP (84)

  15. I agree with all of it. I used to be able to do anything with a good manual. What happened to that. That would help so much . I have no kids, so have to call an $80 an hour techie, very good, very busy, and if a had a manual, that was decently written, without skipping steps, or putting them in the wrong order, I’d be good. Don’t even get a poor manual.

    Thanks for all you do, Leo.

  16. Although your analysis of the computer skills of older citizens coincides with mine, your article contains an unspoken assumption that adults between 18 and 50 have good computer skills. I am totally unconvinced of that idea. I talk to too many younger persons who would not know how perform any action on the computer that did not involve a mouse – click.

    • An excellent observation, and I have to concur. If nothing else it should make the over-50 crowd realize, once again, that it’s not necessarily about age. 🙂

  17. Thanks, Leo, for a very thoughtful commentary. One problem is well defined in a recent book. You really can’t walk in someone elses shoes. Your background and experience is unique. No one else has exactly the same birthright, education and experience. Therefore, it is very difficult to design something for others. Technology suffers acutely from this problem.
    I now own at least 4 different manuals trying to explain Windows 10. I rarely find what I need in any of them. As I used to tell my students many years ago when I taught “beginning computing” to adults (in the MSDOS age), “The English language has been in use for many centuries, computerese is just a current slang that changes every 9 months.” I still believe this, although the time lag has become shorter.
    Let’s all try to urge the industry to make a greater effort to “walk in our shoes”, knowing full well that they really can’t.

  18. Leo, hello from Australia. Yesterday I addressed a group of 80 of my fellow senior citizens, speaking to them about getting the most out of “the gift of years”. Naturally, I referred to computers and even asked those present to indicate whether they used them. More than half said yes. Today, your email arrived and I read your brilliant and sensitive article, which says things much better than I had. It looks as though my timing is well off!
    Never mind, I will keep the article in case I am ever asked again to present such a talk. Meanwhile, I hope you keep up your excellent work, making life just that much easier for those of us who have clocked up enough years to be called oldies.

    • Hi there, Dennis !

      Well said Dennis. At 86 years of age and also in Australia I like to keep up with current technology and use it constantly but would be only half as competent as I am without constant reminders and articles from Leo.

  19. Leo, I also agree with you on many things. Technology producers have stopped taking time to truly answer the question of; Is this change needed?; Will it improve the product?; What problem is it solving?
    An example of this is I purchased a new backup program. You always talk about “Image” a disk. This new program now longer uses that term. It’s now “copy to vd”. Is that the same thing? I don’t know yet.

    Companies need to have older people in their focus groups. I’m in good health but like all older people my eyes are degrading.
    Why does MY Link on my new car have the time & temperature in a small font so I have to LOOK at the screen to see it instead of glancing at it. The radio station ID take up half the screen size. Why do gas pump use tiny font one or 2 pixels wide to ask for credit or debit? I could go on but until the CEO’s and Managers wake up to this the 25 year olds will keep doing all the design work.

  20. Leo: Once again you have hit the nail on the head about aging and learning new things. I’m also amazed that you have so many readers who are like me, in my 80’s and still interested in new things. I haven’t read something else that can keep me from trying to keep current with life in general and that is how I spend the time I have left. I find I still have an interest in photography, love to go for a drive in the country, try new (to me) types of foods and read a good Western or mystery. Oh well, so much to do and so little time to do it. Keep up the good work!!!

  21. Very well said! I only got a computer at the end of 03 and am now 81. I have been through all os from XP to 7 but no 10 for me on metered data. I was just given 2 extra HDs which I installed myself and having my machine at a my family members unlimited I downloaded PCLinux iso. I plan to keep 7 as an offline work horse and put Linux on another drive with remote access. I am extremely physically active and would not have the time for Facebook. The Economist recently depicted Zuckerberg as Ceasar. My theory is that he is the second coming. At my age I should consider accepting the Lord Mark Zuckerberg as my savior but like St. Augustine many centuries ago when praying to the Lord to make him chaste, “but not just yet”. The Economist also said that people go to Google to get domething done but Facebook to kill time. I don’t have the time. Well as I end this here is a failure for Android. It overrides everything I type to upper case for name and email. Well I checked settings and have no choice, just upper case.

  22. Hi Leo – Thanks for another great article.
    I see much of what you discuss, at the senior center where I teach. We have various classes on the use of technology, but the one I like best isn’t a class, but a club. Twice monthly, for two hours, we meet in a classroom and discuss issues mostly with PCs, and some with smart-phones, Macs, and just a tad about Linux.
    One of the things we try to help with is how to find help on the web. Your name is well known to those who attend. Google use is demonstrated occasionally, As is Youtube, and some others. The most difficult to teach is forum use. People who can describe an issue at the meeting, find it near impossible to find answers in forums. For me, most tech forums are like mazes. Sometimes, I’ll take someone’s question, and regardless of whether I can simply answer it, I lead the group through finding answers in forums.
    I don’t remember the specific point I wanted to make when I started this. I’m getting (okay, i won’t go there, lol).

  23. Leo,

    You opened the door to an opportunity to engage with AARP, lobby the technology providers and manufacturers to support all users of technology regardless of age in your “A Way Out” section. May I ask if you have shared or intend to share these insights directly with AARP? It would be interesting what kind of dialog could get started.
    Some of the comments on this post confirm that the issue of understanding technology and change is not just an issue for the aging, i.e. those over 50, but everyone as after all those born today are aging and will most likely experience change at a much faster rate than us.


    Tom Davis

  24. To my children,
    Never make fun of having to help me with computer stuff.
    Remember I taught you how to use a spoon.
    Sue Fitzmaurice, author

  25. Thank you, Leo This is a great commentary. I have enjoyed computers during my life. I built a website for the company I work for, purchased workstations
    as well. My statement in agreement the other posts are, we need information
    to achieve our aim in technology. AARP could succeed very easily in helping the over 50 crowd by providing book lists, websites, seminars, etc. to aid in developing our skills with a computer. I have always wanted to learn types of programming, programs like Access. I could go on, but let’s just say I am captivated by the machines. There is needless to say a very large segment of the population who want to learn may things, yet we don’t have a roadmap
    showing us the way. As one reader put it, she can’t get a poor manual to help her.
    You perform a great service with your website. I would greatly appreciate any direction you may have to offer.

  26. thank you leo,I am new to your site and hope to learn a lot more than I do now.
    I downloaded windows 10 and didn’t know how to use it.,
    so I went back to windows 8.1.
    I’ve had a computer since 2001,but don’t have a lot of time to spend on it,so I’m in the tech tolerant group,but also in the tech frustrated group….
    I just turned 70 and I use my computer for pleasure and on line banking,
    but all these changes are frustrating….hope to learn a lot from you….

  27. I am 58, a former electrical engineer, have been in the computer fixing business 16 years. Learned by combination of applying previous skills, reading manuals and documentation, and experimentation.

    The problem I have with current new stuff is lack of proper documentation. A good manual cuts learning time by 90%. I like computers and tech, but I have other interests, and I have to get work done. I don’t want to spend days playing with the latest social media site or mobile device to figure out how to use it, especially when it doesn’t work in what I think is the logical way. I don’t have time to waste experimenting and/or trying to figure out what some 20something programmer thought was a”logical” way to do things. They may be whiz-bang programmers but they can’t write.

    Lack of proper documentation is the biggest problem I see.

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