Article Archive

Spring 2008

Nanatechnology: Bridging the Generational Digital Divide
By Neal E. Cutler, PhD
Aging Well
Vol. 1 No. 2

No, that’s not a typo. Nanotechnology refers to technological devices smaller than a poppy seed. At the risk of making a bad joke, I’ll call nanatechnology the computer stuff for grandmas and grandpas, many of whom are your clients and patients. Although computers and the Internet have literally become household furnishings, we still hear about the “Digital Divide”—the haves vs. the have-nots when it comes to accessing technology. Often the divide is socioeconomic since many simply cannot afford computers. But there is also substantial discussion about a generational digital divide. Older adults don’t use computers, e-mail, or the Internet as frequently as younger and middle-age folks do.

To the extent that there are age differences in computer use, such differences could be a consequence of aging itself (e.g., declines in vision, hearing, and manual dexterity). But it’s just as likely, or possibly more so, to be a generational effect, since personal computers, the Internet, blogs, and Facebook weren’t part of everyday life until relatively recently.

Research shows that people who use computers at work are more likely to have home computers, something uncharacteristic of the majority of today’s elders. On the other hand, through SeniorNet and similar educational organizations and Web sites and with PCs available in virtually all public libraries and senior centers, computers are increasingly accessible to adults of all generations.

Nonetheless, because notions of a generational digital divide persist, whether actual or perceived, there are services that can help bridge the divide in healthcare, information, and communication.

The interaction among older adults, their families, caregivers, and healthcare providers is one of the greatest challenges, with the most exciting developments coming from the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST). CAST is a nonprofit association of businesses, foundations, academic and applied researchers, health and social service providers, and especially technology developers and entrepreneurs focusing their attention on the interface of technology and aging. The CAST video Imagine (accessible on its Web site) offers a futuristic view of interactive health technology that is not science fiction. It features an intergenerational story that sensitively illustrates how technology can bridge the gap.

As general information sources, there are a zillion Web sites that provide professionals and family members with health, financial, social, and caregiving information. But for older adults seeking information directly, I have some nominations.

AARP’s Web site ( is actually a family of Web sites about health, finance, leisure, public policy, and even some social networking. (Here, blogs are known simply as journals.) Not surprisingly, the colors, contrast, and font sizes are sensitive to aging. And in keeping with such initiatives as AARP’s Divided We Fail campaign, the Web site is decidedly intergenerational.

The integrated hardware/software system used in some senior centers and residential facilities offers a different kind of emerging IT that combines information with education. Such systems provide elders with a menu of old movies and TV shows, current news, elder-friendly e-mail access, puzzles and video games, and physical games (e.g., airplane and race car simulators). Typically in these systems, the content is accessible through standard, as well as gigantic, keyboards, roller-ball mouses, or touchscreen technology, including alphabetic keyboards (alongside QWERTY), since many older adults don’t type.

There are lots of search engines out there, and your clients and patients may enjoy, which describes itself as “the first age-relevant search engine.” The site provides updated listings of and links to the most popular age-related search results in categories such as sex, recipes, finance, brain teasers, and travel.

Because communication can be an antidote to isolation, consider these examples of communications technology. The small numbers and complex menus on most cell phones prohibit many elders from using this mobile technology. Newer, simpler phones, however, feature large digits, fewer and larger buttons, can connect the user to a human operator by dialing 0, and have a dial tone. Last year, I was describing these phones to undergraduates, and a hand shot up in the back of the room: “What’s a dial tone?”

For free long-distance phone calls between a grandparent and a grandchild, there is Skype, an Internet phone system. Skype has two inviting attributes: First, both the easily downloadable software and all phone calls, including international calls, are absolutely free. There is no telephone but rather computer-to-computer calls using the PC’s existing speakers plus a microphone. (Microphones are a low-cost addition.) Skype also allows free audio-only conference calls so three generations can be on the same international call. Currently there are about 50 million registered users worldwide in the Skype white pages directory.

A few months ago, I “invented” an online information exercise that facilitates intergenerational interaction using the PC in my mother’s nursing home lobby. Previously a million-words-a-minute secretary typist, at 94 her fingers don’t work well, so I do the keyboarding. Using Google Maps, we requested directions from her former home to her high school in Chicago, circa 1933. Google plotted the driving directions—the two miles my mother had walked—and the video-enhanced map with all the street names provided us with a delightful hour of nostalgic interaction.

Over the next decade, the generational digital divide inevitably will shrink as tech-savvy boomers—with our even more techno-literate kids—move through middle age into old age. In the meantime, I’m confident that the many innovations of nanatechnology will continue to help bridge that divide.

— Neal E. Cutler, PhD, is executive director of the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Center on Aging in Woodland Hills, CA. He is also vice president and dean of the American Institute of Financial Gerontology, which provides applied gerontology training to qualified financial professionals. He is a Fellow of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association - College Retirement Equities Fund and the Gerontological Society of America. In 2002, he published Advising Mature Clients: The New Science of Wealth Span Planning.