Consider older adults as ‘leaders in innovation’

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The hobbies and activities of older adults can be sources of innovation to benefit the entire community, research suggests.

Older adults are often leaders in innovation who use their knowledge and creativity to revitalize communities, improve the environment, and pass on skills and hobbies, says John Carroll, professor of information sciences and technology and an associate of the Institute for CyberScience at Penn State.

Carroll says he hopes the findings help change current notions of aging.

“The idea behind the project is how we can reframe old age as a time when people can contribute and have capacity and are valuable and creative,” Carroll says. “It is very different from the traditional way of looking at aging, which is to see people as they age as requiring custodial care, becoming things that we need to take care of.

“We think that’s wasteful and, as old age becomes a longer period of time and as more people are in that phase of life, it’s just sensible to explore how older adults can do more and be more.”

Beyond stereotypes

Postdoctoral scholar Xiying Wang and doctoral student Tiffany Knearem interviewed older adults to better understand their personal interests and how those interests generated new ideas and innovations.

They found that not only do older adults teach traditional skills, but they also often donated the end products to the community, Wang, says. Some study participants even put an innovative twist on how they distributed those products.

“A good example was the knitting group that met in the library and made a lot of scarves,” Wang says. “After they were done, they would put the scarves on the statues in front of the library for people to take in the winter. If people are cold, they can pick up a scarf, which I thought was pretty interesting and creative.”

Older adults also held leadership positions in community organizations and spearheaded efforts to explore issues and problems in the area, such as helping to revitalizing historic buildings, improving local water quality, and supporting nonprofit groups, the researchers say.

In contrast to some stereotypes that suggest older people shy away from technology, older adults in the study used technology as tools for everyday innovation. One participant used Google Sheets to help a water quality group keep and publicly share accurate records of the data the organization collected. Another participant used his web programming skills to help a friend.

Innovative aging

Technology can facilitate everyday innovation by helping people find and participate in active local groups. Technology companies can play a key role in facilitating innovation among older adults by making websites and tools more user-friendly for the older population, Wang says.

“We need to think about technology in a different lens and incorporate the needs of older adults and reflect on some of their creative causes to support them to generate innovative ideas.

“We see aging not as something that is problematic, but we see aging as an innovative process as long as we can support older adults in generating and improving innovation based on what they’re interested in. They become more active in life and also more active in the activities that they do.”

Researchers recruited 20 older adults who were active at a central Pennsylvania senior center for semi-structured interviews. The adults were all 65 years old or older and lived in their own homes. Older adults who live at home make up about 90 percent of the 49.5 million older adults in the US.

Gaining trust was an important part of the study process. To help establish deeper connections, the team led workshops to help older adults learn technology, such as hosting classes on how to better use Facebook and smartphones.

“Relationship-building was key for this study to establish trust,” says Knearem. “We came, we got to know the people, we played cards and games and became familiar with them. And we wanted to give back for the help that they were giving us.”

The researchers presented their paper at the European Alliance for Innovation’s International Conference on Pervasive Computing Technologies for Healthcare. The National Science Foundation supported the work.

Source: Penn State