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In the Rush to Replace Mechanical Systems with Digital Ones, Companies Need to Guard Against the Rise of Digital Ageism

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It happened to us just recently. Visiting a casual restaurant in an unfamiliar town, we sat at the table expecting the wait staff to bring us a printed menu. Instead, we noticed a placard on the table with a now-ubiquitous QR code and the caption, “Scan Here for Menu and Today’s Specials.” The humble printed menu had been replaced by a digital image on our aging iPhone.

Evidence is mounting that a growing number of business and services are swapping familiar objects and activities – printed menus, mechanical locks with keys, services ordered by talking to someone on the phone, speaking to a live teller at the bank – with digital ones. While this might make transactions more efficient, does it really make them more effective? And at the same time, does this rush to digitize our lives run the risk of leaving behind anyone who doesn’t have a smart phone – many of whom are elderly?

A popular term for this type of discrimination: digital ageism.

One online source we found states that 81 percent of seniors now use smartphones, a figure which grew during the COVID pandemic. But that still leaves millions in the “digital darkness.”  In this recent article from NextAvenue, writer Lisa Napoli provides a first-person account of how this digital ageism marginalizes many seniors, and how perhaps it’s time to slow the onrushing train of adopting a digital solution to all the transactions and activities of daily life.

A New Door Lock Leaves 90-Year-Old Stranded

“My cell phone started ringing just as I turned the key in my front door,” Napoli writes in her NextAvenue article. “George, my dear friend and neighbor in downtown Los Angeles, was calling. We had just shared a celebratory lunch, and an unwelcome surprise awaited him when he returned to his apartment.”

What was the crisis? Simple. “Building management had installed a new digital lock on his front door while we were out,” Napoli adds. “And he didn’t have the code. On the eve of his 90th birthday, George found himself shut out of his long-time home.”

Fortunately, Napoli, living in an adjacent building, was able to come to George’s aid. But his plight says a lot about the assumptions that guide our modern methods of digital communication.

George Had Ample Warnings – All of Them Sent Digitally

Napoli quickly got to the root of her neighbor’s problem. The managers of George’s apartment complex had been sending residents plenty of advance warnings that this change to the door locks was coming. Trouble was, all of those alerts were sent digitally. George saw none of them.

“Building management, it seemed, had been alerting tenants about the upcoming change via email and text — methods of communication my friend didn’t use,” Napoli explains. “As his eyesight had been faltering, George hadn’t been getting online much lately. His sole lifeline to the world was his ever-ringing flip phone.”

Sadly, no one thought to connect with George through the simple means of a telephone call or a note in the mail.

Apps for All (Who Can Use Them, That Is)

The issue, says Napoli, seems rooted in being efficient and saving money. “In the name of efficiency, more companies are driving customers to conduct business digitally,” she writes. “QR codes for menus in restaurants. COVID-19 vaccines scheduled exclusively online. Apps for everything, from banking to health care to travel to routine maintenance requests.”

But as we noted above, this digital shift, based on the smartphone, leaves millions out in the cold. “The presumption that everyone’s life is fully digital — and that everybody is, or wants to be, comfortable with screens — shuts out many who may not be deft with the technology, or even have access to it,” Napoli observes.

For seniors, this seismic shift in how business gets done affects many aspects of life, even simple transactions like paying the rent. “George panicked last year when his building’s management company shut down its on-site office and began requiring tenants pay rent digitally,” Napoli recalls. “Having to mail in the check he used to deliver in person increased the possibility of late fees. Paying online was not something with which he felt comfortable.”

Medical Issue Triggers a Distracting Barrage of Texts

Napoli cites another example of digital ageism, this one even closer to home. “My 85-year-old mother just had a medical issue — the first in her life,” she writes. Suddenly, “[she] found herself barraged with texts directing her at an already stressful time to upload documents, respond to surveys and confirm appointments.”  Even worse, finding an alternative method of contact – such as a phone number – was almost always impossible.

The examples of digital ageism are everywhere, says Napoli. Speaking again of her elderly mother, she writes, “Last year, the appliance store from which she’d purchased a new refrigerator demanded that she fill out a detailed form sent to her via text, and to upload a picture of the defective merchandise before a repairperson would respond.”

Transportation, too, has been digitized. “Can’t drive anymore?” Napoli asks. “‘Just call Über’ isn’t a solution for someone who doesn’t own a smartphone.”

Missing: The Unique Comfort of a Human Touch

For her article, Napoli spoke with Dr. Caroline Cicero of the University of Southern California’s Age Friendly University Initiative. Dr. Cicero has also observed digital ageism firsthand while helping her father deposit a check at a bank, only to find herself frustrated when the branch manager tried to steer him to instead use an app.

“I don’t think we should assume that everyone, young or old or middle-aged, is better off using an app to do our banking,” Dr. Cicero told Napoli. “Companies need to provide humans to talk with. Automation and robots cannot handle questions that may not be pre-written.”

Younger Generations are Blinded by Technology

On the afternoon when neighbor George was locked out, Napoli recalls, she and he tried “frantically calling various numbers in search of help.” Eventually they reached a rep for the firm that had installed the digital keypads, only to be told that their records indicated George had been sent his new codes – by email and text.

“To the millennial on the other end of the phone, the idea that one couldn’t access information on their phone was preposterous,” Napoli writes. The young rep kept insisting George check his email on his phone – something George clearly was unable to do. Finally, when the building maintenance person showed up, he started explaining how anyone with the right code could open the door for George using an app!

“He’s my friend, not my father,” Napoli said angrily. “How would your grandmother deal with this system?” The maintenance man finally acknowledged the problem – and gave George an actual, physical key to his own apartment. “George was happy, and relieved, at this work-around that relieved him from digital jail,” Napoli writes.

Digital Ageism “Excludes and Blames” Seniors

For the final word on this topic, we found this academic study from the Wiley Online Library which describes the problem well. “The transition to digital services might cause the exclusion of many older adults and deepen the digital inequality, [even though] such services mostly meet the criteria of accessibility regulations,” said the report. “Despite this, the prevailing tendency is to blame the older adults themselves for their unwillingness to switch to online services, attributing to their traits of conservatism and technophobia to explain why they rarely use digital services.”

The study went on to cite “the severe and even catastrophic consequences” of digital ageism. As seniors absorb society’s negative stereotypes about aging, they can tend to internalize those negative images and start to believe that they themselves are technologically incapable. This leads more seniors to fear and reject digital technology, which only makes the problem of digital ageism – and resulting marginalization and isolation – worse.

Seems to us that this is a wake-up call for those businesses that want to carve out a true service-oriented niche aimed at seniors: provide personalized service with real humans and not digitized solutions. Funny how everything old is new again!

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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)

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