Originally published at The Chronicle Herald

There are two features of Nova Scotia that are set to distinguish it in the coming years. One is the developing focus on the technology sector with its prospects for research and innovation, while the other is the high representation of older adults in the population. In fact, we could begin to see these two trends converge in interesting ways.

On the tech front, Nova Scotia is home to Volta Labs, a super-hub for startup technology companies in Atlantic Canada. Volta Labs is focused on building a community where entrepreneurs can come together and learn from each other and grow their companies. It claims to have been home to more than 50 tech companies.

On a per-capita basis, Halifax is well-represented in terms of the number of people employed in tech, particularly in the private sector. The city is especially strong in graphics programmers and web developers, according to the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, an independent think-tank based out of Ryerson University.

Regarding age demographics, Nova Scotia continually ranks at or near the top in Canada for its proportion of senior citizens, even though Halifax has a median age that is considerably below the rest of the province.

It wouldn’t occur to most of us to draw a connection between these developments on the tech front and our aging demographic. After all, when we think of seniors, how many of us picture examples of technological innovation? Well, all that is changing around us.

First, there are tremendous benefits that technology offers to older adults in all facets of life, including physical and mental health, social interaction, mobility, safety and leisure. Dr. Neil Charness of Florida State University, who has researched extensively in the area of “gerontechnology” defines three functional purposes that tech serves for seniors.

Under the “substitution” category, he cites the basic example of online banking as a replacement for branch visits, but this extends to on-demand services such as grocery delivery, local transport and handymen, all to be summoned by smartphone.

The second is “augmentation” which includes things like high-contrast monitors to display legible text for seniors with visual impairment, but also computer games designed to train those with failing cognitive abilities.

Finally, “preventative” technologies focus on safety and security, ranging from lifting devices that prevent back injury to remote monitors of chronic conditions such as diabetes or congestive heart disease for those living alone.

Despite the benefits technology offers older adults, studies show relatively slower adoption as we get older. One of the barriers is attitudinal. It is recognized that the work environment prompts most of us to stay abreast of technology and this influence fades as we leave the workforce.

We also know that internet usage, as a means of information search, falls off sharply with age. Interestingly, adoption of mobile phone usage is fairly high among seniors, perhaps because support for personal relationships and security take precedence over acquisition of information through the internet.

But there is also a stubborn irony that frustrates the use of technology by older adults. The vulnerabilities that cause seniors to need technological aids are often the very same factors that make adoption so difficult. Changes in perception, psychomotor performance and cognition alter or impede the way we interact with technology as we age.

Visual challenges include deterioration in acuity, colour perception and susceptibility to glare. In terms of hearing, seniors may have trouble perceiving high-pitched sounds — even components of speech — and overcoming background noise.

Fine motor control and co-ordination may also suffer with the onset of arthritis or neurological issues. Cognitive issues may include memory capacity, attention control and, ultimately, the willingness to learn new technology.

All of this points to the critical role that designers play in ensuring a better person-technology fit and in developing better user training. Already, organizations such as the federally-funded Age-Well Network are leading the charge in Canada in developing artificial intelligence, e-health, communication and mobile technologies, specifically to benefit older adults and caregivers.

Nova Scotia has a unique opportunity to bring its abundant tech skills to the challenges presented by Canada’s aging cohort. Importantly, successful technology development requires interdisciplinary collaboration at a regional level and involves computer scientists, gerontologists, clinicians, engineers, policy experts and community leaders, in addition to seniors themselves. The province is most certainly up to the challenge.


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