XXIII.2 March + April 2016
Page: 66
Digital Citation

What’s special about aging

Ann Light, Sonja Pedell, Toni Robertson, Jenny Waycott, Jeanette Bell, Jeannette Durick, Tuck Leong

back to top 

Aging is the most natural thing in the world. It underpins our understanding of life and how we measure time. We start effortlessly in our earliest youth, making adjustments in how we live as our circumstances and capabilities change. And we continue realigning as we grow older, making change more deliberately as we learn more.

back to top  Insights


By contrast, being old is an arbitrary social category that serves to pigeonhole a hugely diverse range of people. It is not a condition we necessarily recognize in ourselves, even when we fit the demographics. Doris Lessing captures it well: "The great secret that all old people share is that you really haven't changed in 70 or 80 years. Your body changes, but you don't change at all. And that, of course, causes great confusion."

Eva Brandt and colleagues talk about "situated elderliness," or moments in everyday contexts that focus older people on their changing competencies [1]. We may be aging, but we are made to feel old through poor design of products and services [2]. This distinction is not often apparent in the discourses of the HCI literature, where older people are repeatedly associated with the economics of health, lack of socialization, homogeneity, and deficit [3]. Aging is presented as a problem for ICT to solve.

Indeed, as the latest innovations appear, people are still being viewed in ways in which we might not want our older selves to be seen. Take this opening to a 2014 piece on monitoring devices in CACM: "Just a few short years ago, it was extremely challenging for caregivers, friends, and relatives to check in on an elderly loved one without making a phone call or visiting them." Without malice, the implication is that we become a time-consuming worry to our friends and family as we age and that engaging in normal social contact with us is neither desirable nor sufficient. The piece goes on to describe design choices made "ecause older adults wouldn't accept being monitored by a video camera" [4], which raises the question: Who would? As more of us live longer and form a greater percentage of the population in many countries, this inability to empathize with the ordinary aging experience becomes an even bigger concern. It is not enough to put societal value on longer life (and "independent" living) without also considering how we are able to enjoy our time.

The inability to view old age with empathy was a theme we discussed in a workshop in Sydney, Australia. All the authors share a research interest in enabling people to age with dignity and fulfillment, and to use the latest technologies to do so. All of us have looked closely at the work people do to age well on their own terms. Led by Ann Light, whose work has focused on enhancing people's agency in relation to technology (e.g., [5]), the agenda was to consider what happens when rather than treating "old age" as a state you treat aging as a process. And, bringing a participative vision of design, we explored how technology research can align with the messages of the active aging movements in Australia and the U.K.

As an introduction, Ann Light, Tuck Leong, and Toni Robertson had suggested that we can help people live well for longer by acknowledging aging as a physical, mental, emotional, and structural process that people learn to manage as an integral part of the changes that ensue [6]. The paper argues that it is possible to handle "the management of the aging process in such a way people's own interest in aging well is allowed to contribute to their well-being ... Not only do many people have a strong sense of what they need ... but the acts of securing it contribute to the potential for a healthier old age." They demonstrate that keeping a social and cultural identity is as important as fitness or independence (which their informants prized as enablers rather than as goals). Thus, health and aging well are understood not so much in physical terms, but rather in terms of a sense of purpose and engagement.

What does this look like in practice? The group began with the difference between assisting and enabling. We considered not only how to support the moment that someone discernibly needs help, but also how the potential for flexible digital systems offers the means for technology to evolve with people as their lives progress and to smooth that passage. Or, to put it another way, how might we design to ease tensions created by national policies (including retirement age and conditions, workers' rights, power of attorney) that cannot be attuned to the needs of each person?

As the day started, Sonja Pedell introduced Swinburne University's emotion-led technology development and the work of a team that views aging as an inherently emotional matter: "'How do you want to feel?' is our starting question. 'So, how do you want to feel?' It is surprising that this seems to be such a big deal, as HCI has traditionally catered for experiences of individuals, but this seems to be quite different when it comes to older people."

Staying with the theme of what makes us feel good, Ann Light described the tea parties she co-ran as part of the Flexible Dwellings for Extended Living project (FLEX; to investigate convivial living and adjustments we can all make to ensure we age as happily as possible. The invitation asked for people interested to discuss "Living Sociably as We Age," stressing co-production and treating aging as a long-term social process that can be managed like any other. The tea parties (bringing strangers together in a warm, accessible environment) provided a tangible example of how more serendipitous sociality can be generated. The team invited "over-40s" and found that people into their late 80s wanted to pass on suggestions and share ideas (Figure 1).

How might we design to ease tensions created by national policies that cannot be attuned to the needs of each person?

Toni Robertson brought up a different aspect of well-being when she talked about the hydrotherapy class she attends regularly to help manage ongoing joint issues, and how people around her are working to maintain their own strength and flexibility. "They all wanted to come with me here because they were curious. [They have] many tales to tell about the work that they do to maintain the right to decide what matters to them, and what counts, and what objects matter, and what they want do with them." She gave us a visceral account of how much effort people put into self-management of conditions, an important facet of our lives that gets overlooked when designers pass the agency to machines.

The workshop continued to mix the personal and the professional in a way uncommon in academic meetings. Since one focus of the workshop was how we understand the aging process, personal aspects were considered relevant to help us think through what we value and want to protect. We cannot predict our own future circumstances, but to treat aging as if it happens only to other people seemed perverse. So we shared stories of how we became researchers into aging. Some stories concerned our own history and that of parents and friends; some nodded to the labor market and research council priorities; some were political, seeing aging linked to marginalization; others drew on the beauty of the changing body. And we included time to reflect on how getting older made us feel, the fear of declining faculties, the opportunities that lie ahead, and how we view our own mortality.

People do not make a choice between dependency and independence, but rather experience a gradual re-evaluation of their roles.

Having established a principle that enabling people to choose their path is important, not least in that it works to support emotional health, we asked what that might mean for technology design and providing support as we make priorities.

Jeannette Durrick gave us an image from her research at UTS, describing a fellow looking out over a park: "He likes to sit on his balcony and hear the kids playing and hear the life around him, but not necessarily be an active part of it. He could choose to be, but the choice is there." We are reminded that every cohort in every culture will be growing up with particular sets of concerns, drawn from a rich life. Some perspective will be shared; much of it may be quite idiosyncratic. The tools we make can acknowledge that interpersonal variety.

These tools can also acknowledge individual change. Jeanette Bell from UTS offered her smartphone to help us think about how to handle each person's changing capabilities. She described what she witnessed in using the phone with her father. "In the last 10 years, my dad had Alzheimer's ... And, for example, it might be just showing him a picture of Mum, or giving him the iPhone and then realizing he's taking photos, when at other times he couldn't do the most basic things." She delighted in the opportunities it provided him as his condition changed.

Readers may now be asking what is new in noting this variety in experiences and conditions. Variation in circumstances is, after all, an argument for treating different conditions linked to old age as separate issues. However, we are making a different point here. In the workshop, we explored design that enhances people's opportunities for being engaged on their own terms, supported by coordination tools that use new digital powers to join up all their areas of concern and so make it is easier to balance options and choose priorities as capacities alter. That narrows the design space to focus on what is particular about aging: not our different situations, but how we stay involved in decisions about them. People do not make a choice between dependency and independence, but rather experience a gradual re-evaluation of their roles relative to others and their place in their different worlds as energy levels and capacities change. "What remains is the desire to engage; what changes is what it means to engage and, gradually, the methods of engagement" [6]. We can design systems that help us as we abandon things that do not repay the effort in favor of things we truly value. Just ask yourself what you have stopped or started recently to ensure you keep a sensible balance.

We did not look for ways to keep people cocooned, despite the potential of smart technologies to monitor as well as coordinate—and therefore prioritize safety. And we rejected tools that replace faculties too absolutely and impede people's own capacity to manage. We decided that a degree of self-determination is a luxury that technology might help us all share in.

Jenny Waycott of Melbourne University told us about her work with some very old people in developing an iPad application that shares captioned photographs as a way of connecting with others (Figure 2). Jenny noted: "A lot of photos were of meaningful objects. The captions provided the description of why those objects were meaningful to that person and that provided a sense of that person's identity and history ... That identity gets subsumed in their old age. You're just an old lady, or you're just a frail old man, and you're no longer an engineer who developed his own equipment."

Using empathy and designing the right tools, we might avoid such sidelining, working instead to enable a lively engagement and extend the period of fulfilled and self-managed living by making it easier to assemble, judge, and grow the technical, medical, and social networks needed [6]. Above all, designers' efforts to bring technology to bear on aging should not be adding to the challenges that people, as they age, have to manage. Our tools should primarily be freeing us to do what we have learned is important.

back to top  Acknowledgments

The UK Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Flexible Dwellings for Extended Living (grant AH/J007153/1). The Leverhulme Trust funded Light's Ageing and Agency International Academic Fellowship. The Australian Research Council funded other projects mentioned in this article.

back to top  References

1. Brandt, E., Binder, T., Malmborg, L., and Sokoler, T. Communities of everyday practice and situated elderliness as an approach to co-design for senior interaction. Proc. of OZCHI 2010. 400–403.

2. Subasi, O., Malmborg, L., Fitzpatrick, G., and Östlund, B. Re-framing design culture and aging. Interactions 21, 2 (2014), 70–73.

3. Vines, J., Pritchard, G., Wright, P.C., Olivier, P., and Brittain, K. An age-old problem: Examining the discourses of ageing in HCI and strategies for future research. ACM Trans. on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 22, 1 (Mar. 2015), Article 2.

4. Kirkpatrick, K. Sensors for seniors: In-home technologies are helping seniors stay aware, healthy, and in touch. CACM 57, 12 (2014), 17–19.

5. Light, A. Democratising technology: Making transformation using designing, performance, and props. Proc. CHI'11.

6. Light, A., Leong, T., and Robertson, T. Ageing well with CSCW. Proc. ECSCW'15.

back to top  Authors

Ann Light is professor of design and creative technology at the University of Sussex, where she specializes in the social impact of digital technologies and the politics of design. Her work concerns innovations in the fields of social process, community well-being, and sustainability, which she researches using participatory methods.

Sonja Pedell is a senior lecturer in the School of Design at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. Her research interests include interaction design methods, use scenarios, and the development of engaging technologies, in particular for the aging population. She worked as an interaction design consultant for several years.

Toni Robertson co-directs the Interaction Design and Human Practice Lab at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research seeks principled and generative groundings for the design and evaluation of technologies that privilege the experience of those who use them and advance human agency in all aspects of technology design and use.

Jenny Waycott is a lecturer in the Department of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne. Her recent work has focused on the design and use of new technologies to foster social engagement for older adults and people who are housebound.

Jeanette Bell is a part-time researcher at the University of Technology Sydney. She is interested in exploring opportunities to utilize new technologies in day-to-day life. The focus is on IT as a mechanism for enabling life choices by meeting the needs of the end user—on their terms.

Jeannette Durick has many years of experience across various sectors of the ITC industry and is currently completing her doctorate in software engineering-HCI, which is focused on aging and domestic environments.

Tuck Leong is a senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney. His research has primarily been focused on supporting people's experiences with technology. More recently, he has focused his research with aging people, seeking to bring their values into how we design and evaluate IT for this demographic.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. FLEX tea parties asked people how to age sociably.

F2Figure 2. Having fun with iPad games.

back to top 

Copyright held by authors. Publication rights licensed to ACM.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2016 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found