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Boomers Are Closing The Digital Divide Online

Boomers Are Closing The Digital Divide Online
See how older users are becoming more enthusiastic about the Internet

This decade’s online growth is invalidating the notion of a “digital divide,” or “gray gap”—tech-savvy kids on one side and geezers asking, “How does this thing work?” on the other. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 92 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 use the Internet; 85 percent of those 30 to 49; 72 percent of those 50 to 64; and 37 percent of those 65-plus.

“Our studies have found that boomers are just as enthusiastic about the benefits of e-mail and Web activities as their younger counterparts,” says Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew project.

Says Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles, “Just about everybody who wants to be online is online.” There are still some holdouts who “think their lives are just fine without the Internet,” he allows. “That will get harder and harder to continue to do.”

Once people are connected—and about 218 million Americans are—they seldom look back. “I talked to a 93-year-old grandmother who never planned to go near the Internet in her life,” Cole says. “But you send her grandson to Iraq and give her the chance to talk to him twice a day and she’ll go online in an instant. And when she does, she discovers lots of other things.”

In general those are the same practical things attracting her kids and grandkids—researching products, hobbies and medical conditions; getting driving directions; and reading the news. But the generations do gravitate in different directions. The categories of sites that have the highest percentage of users 18 to 24 relate to nightlife, professional wrestling, comics and animation, says Bill Tancer, general manager of global research for Hitwise USA, which tracks where people go online. Compare that to the top categories for 55-plus, and a different picture emerges: Horseracing (which encompasses everything from race results to handicapping software) is number one, followed by golf, stocks and investments, travel cruises and virtual pharmacies.

You might think that this means older users are more “purpose-driven,” but consider their steady stream of visits to something like StumbleUpon Video, which randomly selects videos available to view online. “I would say there is some time wasting involved,” says Tancer.

But who’s to say what constitutes time wasting? If you can afford to book your next cruise, or pick your next horse, then you can probably take a few moments to sample the Web at StumbleUpon. And while you’re out there, you might just look around for other periscopes seeking the same things. This is how online communities—at so-called social networking sites—are created.

“People are saying, ‘I want to form communities irrespective of distance, I want to be connected,’ ” observes Cole. “That is one of the biggest complaints of growing older, being isolated, and for that the Internet is—and I try not to use this word too much—revolutionary.”

While older users increasingly frequent social networking sites, “they are much less interested in Facebook and MySpace, the hang-out-your-shingle sites, and much more interested in ‘how to be a better chess player,’ or ‘how to deal with the physical or emotional toll of a disease,’ ” says Cole.

Playing bridge, poker or Scrabble. Discussing political philosophy. These activities aren’t necessarily new, Cole notes, but in the past “you might not have had people immediately around you that you could have done that with.” For online activities, partners are always available. And they’re people you can get to know, people with a common bond.

Whatever the pretext, community has a pull that isn’t limited by age. More than 90 percent of users on both sides of 50 say that online community is somewhat to very important, according to Cole’s research. And in an unprecedented response, 100 percent of users 50-plus report benefiting from their online communities. Some users even report checking in with communities before checking their e-mail.

A digital divide is more pronounced in how users share information online, Cole says. Users ages 12 to 24 are “much more likely to trust unknown peers than experts,” he says. An older user is as likely to be suspicious of information found on the Internet as to believe it. He “may play Scrabulous with unknown peers but is less likely to be taking advice from them.” That suspicion extends to concerns about privacy and security online, says Tancer. But while visitors to anti-spyware and virus protection sites skew older, they’re less likely than young people to act to protect themselves against fraud, studies have found.

It’s curiosity, not suspicion, that entices many older users to learn about the past on the Internet. Many are looking way back: 47.8 percent of the visitors to the genealogy site Ancestry.com are 55-plus (according to Hitwise), while Legacy.com (“your nationwide resource for obituaries and guest books”) counts 64 percent of its visitors in that age group. Some are more interested in the recent past. “The 55-plus demo is big in terms of getting back in touch,” says Tancer. Classmates.com gets 34.2 percent of its traffic from people in that demographic, and Reunion.com gets 27.9 percent (the biggest age group for both sites).

Finding someone else (or even fantasizing about it) is a popular activity with all ages. But with connectivity comes the risk of being found—even if you don’t want to be. Getting e-mail from people you have not seen or even thought of in 30 years can be a mixed blessing. The ability to rebuild your life with a clean slate is getting harder, says Cole: “The idea of a frontier—even in the 1960s you could move to California and start over—that’s changing a bit.”

The past is, after all, just a few clicks away—which also means “your great-great-great grandchildren will meet you and your children online,” predicts Cole. “There will be a site dedicated to [your children’s] lives that will contain everything from video of them being born to home movies, report cards, weddings, any extraordinary things they did. All the way up to the funeral.”

Sean Elder is a writer, editor and blogger in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Designing for the Senior Surge

Baby boomers brought ugly grab-bars to bathrooms and wheelchair ramps to hallways to prepare for growing old at home. Now they can take credit for products that people without infirmities could appreciate.

Makers of appliances and bath fixtures are finding new ways to ensure their wares age gracefully along with their users. Among the innovations: stoves that monitor pots to prevent them from boiling over and appliance control panels with adjustable typefaces. The race to invent senior-friendly designs has prompted researchers at General Electric Co. to plug their ears with cotton to simulate hearing loss and don goggles that blur their vision during product testing.

Redesigning products for aging consumers seems to make good business sense. There are 78 million U.S. baby boomers, and roughly one-third will be 62 years old or older by 2013, says AARP. Unlike their parents, who often moved into retirement communities or assisted-living centers, most boomers plan to remain in their own homes, surveys show. In recent years, this "aging in place" phenomenon has triggered home renovations and new construction including halls and doorways wide enough for walkers and wheelchairs, and master suites and laundries on the ground floor so residents can avoid stairs. Now, the technology behind home appliances and fixtures is catching up. Controls are being revamped to be easier to operate for arthritic hands as well as minds that aren't as sharp as they once were. Safety is taking a higher priority.

But marketing these senior-friendly features before they're needed requires a delicate touch. "The older consumers don't want to be treated like they're ready for retirement," says Mark Delaney, director of the home-industry sector at NPD Group, a market research firm.

And with the housing market and economy sluggish, such features may be a tougher sell. Fewer U.S. homeowners will remodel their kitchens this year -- 7.2 million, down from 7.5 million in 2007 -- and they will spend about 12% less, $84.7 billion, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association. Bathroom renovations this year are expected to decline to 10.4 million rooms from 10.9 million in 2007, while spending will fall 7.5% to $64.9 billion, the trade group says.

Still, product makers want to target older boomers now, since homeowners undertake major renovations infrequently; kitchens are redone every 20 years on average, the association says.

Motor Skills
This Delta faucet turns on and off when it is tapped, making it easier to operate for people with weak wrists or arthritic hands.
Older people can have a harder time gripping things and bending over. Appliance makers are moving controls to the fronts of stoves for easier access, and levers are replacing knobs on sink fixtures.

To accommodate older backs, some manufacturers are promoting dishwasher drawers that can sit directly below the kitchen counter, or even on top of it. The same principles of putting work at a more comfortable height are evident in new refrigerator and oven designs. Several makers, including LG and Haier, unveiled refrigerators at the kitchen and bath show with four doors: two French doors on the top and two freezer drawers on the bottom stacked on top of each other. The top doors are easier to open because they're half the size of one big door, while the top freezer drawer, featuring a shallow basket for everyday use, reduces bending over.

Vision Problems
A person's eyesight typically begins to decline starting in their 40s. Smaller print appears less sharp and, by age 70 or 80, vision can take on a yellow tint.

The Discovery wall oven by Dacor features a display panel with adjustable font sizes and color-contrast options to make words easier to read. Users also can choose the volume and pitch of the oven's alarm. General Electric has come out with LCD touch screens that allow users to select from eight color combinations, and the company is looking into larger-font displays.
Stumbling on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night could become a thing of the past. Lutron Electronics offers a motion-sensor lighting-control system that can be programmed to turn on night lights when a person gets out of bed.

Senior Moments
Several new products appear geared toward heading off household disasters that could occur when memory slips. Thermador this summer will release an electric cooktop that uses an infrared beam to monitor the amount of heat coming from cookware. Called Sensor Dome, the device rises about an inch above the stove and switches the heating element on and off to maintain a consistent temperature to prevent pots from boiling over. The feature requires enamel-coated cookware, or a dishwasher-safe sticker that can be attached to other types of pots.

To prevent spills in the bathroom, a British design student developed Flowban, a device that shuts off incoming water to faucets when the tub or sink is full. The device, which costs about $250 and doesn't require an electrical hookup, is triggered when water reaches the overflow pipe of a sink or tub. Its maker, About Time Design Ltd. of England, sees huge potential in marketing the product to nursing homes and hospitals.

When it comes to senior housing, does size matter?

Smaller is usually construed as better giving seniors more mobility, lowering their costs to maintain their properties and increased social activities are the driving forces for the seniors downsizing their primary and secondary housing choices.

The trend towards smaller homes for current seniors and baby boomers becomes stronger as time goes on. Bob Waun, CEO of Vacation-Finance and author of “Between Empty Nesting and the old age home - Besting, Better Nesting: The New American Dream“, points out in his book that the trend for Baby Boomers is more residences in different locations that are smaller and easier to maintain. Many seniors are selling their multi-million dollar homes in the suburbs and are downsizing to town homes or condos with less maintenance requirements or in some cases relocating to urban areas once their children have moved out making them “empty nesters”.

Another trend gaining acceptance is communal living such as living in a multi-unit building and having group meals and activities amongst the small group of seniors living in the building or in some cases a 3-4 unit building. The cooperative living concept is different than assisted living but provides the social interaction that many seniors crave.

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