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The Elderly Need Smartphones and Apps to Fight COVID-19

The Elderly Need Smartphones and Apps to Fight COVID-19

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By Dr. Wanda Curlee
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Military University

"I don’t understand. What is this? Where is the start button?" These are questions you may hear from your parents or grandparents who are over 65 years old. No one would argue that the elderly are at a higher risk of contracting and dying from the coronavirus-caused COVID-19 disease than younger individuals.

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However, a good number of the elderly do not know how to use computer apps, which are generally found on a smartphone, laptop, or tablet. Or they may have only a rudimentary knowledge of the technology for deliveries of groceries, prescriptions or restaurant meals — and then often only with the assistance of someone younger.

Pew Research found that only four out of 10 seniors use a cell phone. But as we know, a cell phone is not always a smartphone. Not having a smartphone, lack of broadband, and not using the internet presents the first issue with the elderly and the use of apps. So, this Pew Research data needs to be reviewed in more detail.

This Pew data is from 2017, so cell phone usage may have gone up since then, but probably not substantially. First, let’s look at some data. Only 60% of those ages 75 to 79 use the internet, and that number drops to 44% for those 80 and older; only 28% of those 80 and older subscribe to broadband and only 41% of the 75- to 79-year-olds.

The telling statistic from Pew is that only 31% of the 75 to 79 cohort own a smartphone, and only 17% of those 80 and older own one. Those in these age groups who do own a smartphone tend to be affluent, well educated, and among those in the 65 to 75 age bracket.

The Pew research also found that 48% of those 65 and older say they need assistance when they buy an electronic device. Needing help exposes the elderly to extended time with a stranger or with a younger family member. The stranger or younger relative may have COVID-19 without any symptoms, which could be devastating.

Apps Developers Are Missing a Broad Section of the Elderly Community   

Apps developers are missing a broad section of the elderly community that is uncomfortable with technology. Even before COVID-19, there were apps that the elderly could use, but many of them did not have the equipment or know-how to use them. Think of Uber and Instacart, an online app for ordering groceries.

Many elderly people cannot drive — or should not drive — but do not want to give up their license. Having a license means independence. If they understood how to call for an Uber ride or to order groceries, a car might not be needed. An 800 number would increase the ability of the elderly to use apps.

Granted, these service companies would still need people to staff the phones. Still, with a smart artificial intelligence (AI) program that responds to callers appropriately, the number of individuals on staff would be minimal.

Patrick Nelson of NetworkWorld has written about how seniors use apps differently than other age groups. The older generation stays on an app much longer, whereas teens jump from app to app, spending little time with each one. Teens also shy away from email and use texting and other apps to stay in touch with friends and family.

While Teens Shy Away from Email, Seniors Use Email to Communicate

In contrast, seniors use email to communicate. Since seniors spend their time on apps longer; if it is designed correctly, the app will be used extensively. Or, if it is not, then companies should provide an 800 number.

So how do we get seniors who use smartphones to more readily use apps? Emilie Futterman of fueled.com makes a common-sense observation — understand how seniors use apps. But is that reality when millennials and Gen-Zers are developing the apps? Futterman expands on her statement by asking developers to think about a senior's habits.

Many seniors are grandparents, so they love pictures of their grandchildren. Other seniors may be in an assisted living arrangement. Seniors are generally under the care of several doctors and may have difficulty keeping track of their medical information. Finally, seniors would probably be interested in finding information on favorite or new television shows, books, and sports.

Smartphones can store hundreds, if not thousands of photos. Futterman points to advantage of an app that easily files pictures large enough to be seen by seniors, one that they can send and receive quickly to other individuals. Seniors would adopt such an app. But the designer would have to work with seniors to make sure that it is easy to use from the senior’s perspective.

Think about a senior’s healthcare needs. How helpful it would be if someone were to create an app specifically for seniors to navigate their medical appointments, prescriptions, what ailments those prescriptions treat, and how often their medications are to be taken, while allowing easy access to telehealth and sending messages to doctors. This is a lot of information to include in an app.

Many Times, Portals for Medical Practices and Doctors Are Not Senior-Friendly

Yes, there are portals that practices and doctors use for their patients, but many times they are not senior-friendly. And the rub is each doctor or practice has a different portal. It would be great if the app seamlessly integrated all the senior’s medical information with the correct portal. The senior no longer would need to know the nuances of each portal.

Designing an app for seniors who want to know about books or sports would also encourage more adoption of a smartphone. Let’s go back to Uber and Instacart. These apps may be essential to some seniors who live alone or to provide care for someone who cannot be left alone. These seniors would benefit from Ubereats and ordering groceries from Instacart.

But these apps are not easy for some seniors to access and use. Designing a scaled-down version of Instacart and Uber could help. According to Paula Span of the New York Times, Uber and Lyft have developed partnerships with healthcare offices to help seniors. This is a good start, but much more needs to be done for seniors in this new normal. Businesses, including those that have their own apps, need to think about those at the highest risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the Author

Dr. Wanda Curlee is a full-time professor at American Military University. She has over 30 years of consulting and project management experience and has worked at several Fortune 500 companies. She has a Doctorate of Management and Organizational Leadership, an M.B.A., an M.A. and a B.A. Dr. Curlee has published numerous articles and several books on project management.