Humanising Technology for Older Adults

Technology can be of profound benefit to seniors and their supporters—but it has to be adaptable to individual needs and contexts to be truly useful.

Humanising Technology for Older Adults

Date Posted

28 Jan 2019


Issue 20 January 2019, 28 Jan 2019

As a discipline, gerontology looks at biopsychosocial and spiritual dimensions of ageing—necessary elements to consider when thinking about technology for older adults. Questions that arise include: which cohorts of older adults are the technologies for; are they ready for them; do technologies meet their needs; how technologies can enable them to age-in-place; even whether and how technology can be used to provide peace of mind. Gerontechnology is the multidisciplinary field combining gerontology and technology to take into account such considerations.

In the case of Singapore, the drive towards a Smart Nation and its impact on older adults should be considered from a gerontechnology perspective also. Concerns and potential unintended effects that could be discussed and addressed include: the digital divide among the elderly between the haves and have-nots or know and know-nots, the social isolation of older adults who are not digitally connected, and the risk of over-reliance on technology as a panacea.

Context matters in the implementation of technology, for older adults as well as for their caregivers. In designing and thinking of technology for older adults, due consideration needs to be given to those providing direct caregiving. Besides enabling older adults to age-in-place themselves, technology can also facilitate caregiving—such as for those who have commitments that take them out of the home or even abroad.

For instance, Smart Nation initiatives for older adults could make caregivers “smarter” and improve family decision-making with sensor technologies to support caregiving, electronic medical records with predictive analytics to plan ahead for family caregiving, as well as assistive technologies and concierge caregiver services. The possibilities are plentiful.

Humanising technology means pursuing technology that appeals to our senses and needs. Technology should be personalised to individual needs and learning habits—the user-friendliness, learning curve, accessibility options and customisable settings of modern devices are there by design. Gerontechnology takes into account functional design that can meet the specific needs of senior adults, who may experience diminished tactile, auditory and visual senses that varies from person to person. If technologies intended for seniors’ use are not humanised or are too generalised for a particular group, adoption can be sluggish over time—and certain groups may fall behind the curve as a result.

Humanising technology could also mean taking into account both intrinsic needs (such as the desire to stay fit and healthy) and extrinsic motivations (such as incentives to spur individuals to exercise). This is the principle, for example, behind the Health Promotion Board’s step-tracker programme.1

Context matters in the implementation of technology, for older adults as well as for their caregivers.

Another aspect of technology that can often be overlooked is its psychological value. Imagine a group of older adults exchanging news and updates with their old schoolmates and reminiscing about the good old days through Whatsapp—and the good this can do for their mental and emotional wellbeing. Such clear benefits can help make the embrace of technology more appealing. The social appeal of technology is akin to creating personalised virtual family and community spaces, where we do not need to physically meet our loved ones all the time in order to stay in touch effectively and affectively.

It is crucial also to consider how technology can be humanised in appropriate cultural terms, such as with diverse language settings, or by providing content (such as newsfeeds or entertainment) from different cultural sources, to cater to the diverse backgrounds and interests of seniors. The key is not to make seniors adapt to technology but for technological uses to be adapted to the needs of seniors, at their own pace.

The distancing afforded by technology could sometimes even be an advantage. For instance, death is a culturally sensitive subject and it is not easy to broach such a difficult subject even amongst family members. I see the potential and value of technology as a communication tool that can humanise the end-of-life journey. Through the medium of technology, we may be able to explore, express and examine our anxieties and desires about these issues, which we might find difficult to share openly with loved ones.

All these possibilities are moot if seniors do not have the means to own or use a device (such as a smartphone) able to run the applications that will most benefit them. Could we pool our collective resources to ensure that everyone, particularly seniors, can have use of a suitable device with data access and the right pre-loaded mix of applications—to help bridge the digital divide between haves and have-nots? And can we provide support to show our older adults how to make the most of technology to live and age better? Gerontechnology is not just about technological solutions but also social ones. We will have to do it together.

Social Uses of Technology: An Example

Around the world, a variety of mobile apps are popular among older adults.

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Tan Tai Kiat is Director, Operations at SingHealth Community Hospitals. He received his MSc Public Policy and Administration at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) under the Singapore-LSE Trust scholarship. Tai Kiat is also a PhD student at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) under the Alice Lim Memorial Fund scholarship and Research Scholar with SUSS Geron EngAGE.


  1. HealthHub, “National Steps ChallengeTM Season 4 Is Here!”, accessed October 22, 2018, www.healthhub.sg/programmes/37/nsc.

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