Keeping Seniors Connected with Tech

With social isolation an increasingly serious concern for seniors, new communications technology can help more people age gracefully.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Continuing progress in medical science is allowing people to enjoy longer lives. However, living longer comes with its own challenges, particularly at older ages.

In particular, telecommunication devices can be confusing for seniors, and this barrier can lead to increasing social isolation, depression, and vulnerability.

Ronald Baecker, Director of the Technologies for Aging Gracefully lab (TAGlab) and professor at the University of Toronto, is working with an interdisciplinary group that includes graphic designers, psychologists, and sociologists, to design communication devices with simple interfaces to keep seniors connected.

To achieve this, Baecker is building devices that look nothing like a computer. Instead, they blend in with more familiar household appliances, such as picture frames or televisions, and can be activated by the push of a button.

“We believe that this would enable people to remain socially active, to feel better connected to family and friends, to not as easily get depressed, and just generally to feel that they are a part of society and be happier than they would be otherwise,” explains Baecker.

Going even a step further, these technologies can assist communication by suggesting words or offering cues depending on the context of a conversation – enabling individuals with language disorders (such as aphasia or autism spectrum disorder) to speak more easily. Improved computing power in mobile devices also allows these technologies to be increasingly portable.


UPDATE (July 15, 2019): Professor Baecker has now retired and it writing books, including the recently published Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, a review of critical ethical issues raised by computers. The TAGlab, founded by Baecker, is now directed by Professor Cosmin Munteanu, who continues to address barriers to technology as users age.

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Ron Baecker is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science, Emeritus Bell Chair in Human-Computer Interaction, and founder and director of the Technologies for Aging Gracefully lab (TAGlab) at the University of Toronto.  He is also Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Design at OCAD University, Affiliate Scientist with the Kunin-Lunenfeld Applied Research Unit of Baycrest, and Adjunct Scientist with the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

He has been named one of the 60 Pioneers of Computer Graphics by ACM SIGGRAPH, has been elected to the CHI (Computers and Human Interaction) Academy by ACM SIGCHI, has been given the Canadian Human Computer Communications Society Achievement Award, has been named an ACM Fellow, and was recently given a Canadian Digital Media Pioneer Award.  He is Editor of the Synthesis Lectures on Assistive, Rehabilitative, and Health-preserving Technologies (Morgan & Claypool, Publisher).