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Designing Technology Solutions for an Aging Population

By Lindsay Poirier on August 12, 2011

The world’s aging population was a trending topic at the Society of International Development’s World Congress, July 29 – 31, 2011 at the Omni-Shore Hotel in Washington DC. Speakers and panelists mentioned the drift several times but did not talk much about what this meant in the world of development. This led me to question: To what extent does an aging population affect ICT4D initiatives? What special design considerations need to be taken into account to cater solutions to this changing demographic?

The past two hundred years have marked substantial population growth as better healthcare, sanitation, and knowledge of healthy habits have decreased infant mortality, increased life expectancy, and ensured that women survive to childbearing age. Over the past 50 years, however, fertility levels have been steadily dropping as life expectancy continues to increase.

Fertility levels dropped from 5.0 children per woman in 1950 to 2.7 in 2000 and are expected to drop further to 2.1 over the next half a century, according to reports by the United Nations Population Division. It has been suggested that this can be attributed to the growing costs of raising children. The trend has been slower in developing countries, but, with a faster transition in fertility rates, it is expected to pick up rapidly over the next fifty years.

Taking this and increased life expectancy into consideration, the median age of the world’s population is expected to increase from 26.5 in 2000 to 36.2 in 2050, and the percentage of those individuals over the age of 60 is expected to, for the first time in history, match that of the youth population (0-14 years) at 21% by the year 2050. In general terms, this represents a huge shift in the world’s age demographics.

ICT can provide several benefits to the aging populations in developing countries:

  1. SMS text messages can serve as reminders for healthcare related issues.
  2. Mobile phone applications can help older individuals maintain bank accounts at lower cost. The success of this was shown in the M-PESA project in East Africa.
  3. The Internet and social media can offer access to government and democratic information for increased civic participation.

These are just a few of the numerous ways technology can be used.

Variances in age, gender, education level, ethnicity, and disabilities all impact the design needs for ICT solutions. In order for ICT4D initiatives to be successful at poverty alleviation and improved quality of life, they need to take into consideration individual and cultural factors of stakeholders, those that will use the technology, and those that will be impacted. Obviously, radio is not the best tool for an individual that is hard of hearing, and textual web content will not be helpful to an individual who is illiterate. Still, proper design can ensure that the solution will suit and remain sustainable for those that are affected.

Factors that should be considered when designing for an aging population can be split into two categories:

  1. Physical: Hearing and sight impairments, Mobility constraints (i.e. older individuals with arthritis may have a difficult time typing)
  2. Cultural: Language, Literacy and educational background, General willingness to adapt to emerging technology

Again, there are many more design factors to consider for this demographic. Furthermore, it would be impossible to list every constraint and consideration without researching the specific group of individuals that will be affected by the ICT implementation and even including them in the design process.

In the list above, willingness to adapt may be the most difficult to overcome because it can be deeply rooted within an individual’s cultural background. Also, individuals who have been surviving without technology to older ages may find it meaningless and even offensive for developers to suggest technology for their aid. However, as younger generations, who are much more steadily becoming adept at capitalizing on advancements in technology, age, cultural considerations and drawbacks will become less of an issue.


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I am an undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Information Technology and Science, Technology, and Society. The focus of my studies is on International Development. I have a particular interest in incorporating ICTs in primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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