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After his mother died, Stuart Arnott worried about how his elderly father would cope living on his own in Fife more than 450 miles away from the family in London.
So he created an app to allow family to post photos, messages and daily updates on a tablet computer – in effect, a digital window into the family’s life.
“This weekend, we sent pictures as we were camping in Epping Forest,” Mr Arnott says of the service, called Mindings, which is now being trialled by the National Health Service.
“We can’t visit him every day but he can see when my daughter is going to her ballet classes and then see her in action.”
Mr Arnott’s father has joined the growing band of so-called “silver surfers”, who stream television, use FaceTime and turn to their tablets as easily as they would a book.
An industry has begun to emerge in providing devices and applications aimed at the wealthy boomer generation that has the time, money and superfast broadband connections to embrace the digital age.
Ofcom, Britain’s communications regulator, found that older users are driving growth in the UK’s social networking, for example, with more than a third of people aged 55-64 using such websites compared with less than a quarter in 2011. There has been no significant growth among any other age group since 2011.
The 55-64 age group is also twice as likely now than in 2005 to bank and pay bills online on a weekly basis, says Ofcom. A Deloitte study found that almost a fifth would like to use a mobile money transfer app.
Almost a third access news websites on a weekly basis and the over-55s read more ebooks than younger age groups, Ofcom says, while more than a quarter use video streaming services such as Netflix.
And more than nine in 10 of the baby-boomer generation know what the word “selfie” means, according to Research Now, with almost a third having taken one. And, probably, 100 per cent of them embarrassing their children.
Doro, the Swedish “seniors” smartphone maker, has identified at least six different categories of older user, which vary in how they use technology.
However, Chris Millington, managing director of Doro, says the pace at which the older generation is taking to technology is accelerating. “It is even faster in the past two years,” he says, pointing to the company’s sales growth of 70 per cent last year.
There have been mistakes in the past in trying to reach older tech users. Saga Zone, an alternative to Facebook for the over-50s, was closed after racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic comments were posted.
But the idea behind the service – a social forum for older internet users akin to Mumsnet – has now taken off as Silversurfers.com. The site, which carries features and news as well as commercial offers and social forums, already attracts 250,000 visitors a month after launching at the end of last year.
“The over-50s are half the population and 80 per cent of the wealth but there is only one brand – Saga. This is the beginning of a very large portal for a wealthy population that brands find hard to reach,” says Martin Lock, chief executive.
Mr Lock adds that the website works alongside Facebook, where it can have up to 90,000 people interacting with each other, while “early adopters in younger generations are now moving to newer apps”.
The popularity of tablets in particular has accelerated their use of online media, Mr Lock says, with companies making it easier for the elderly to use tablets and smartphones.
Simon Rockman, founder of Fuss Free Phones, a company that offers simple to use handsets and clear tariffs, sees the need to take complications out of the hands of the user.
He offers an extensive customer service similar to France’s Bazile Telecom, whose helpline can dial numbers for a customer or even change the time or ringer. Bazile sells through French pharmacies, where the elderly are more likely to be spending time.
Both companies use handsets made by Doro, whose range now spans simple smartphones to computers and tablets with large, clear icons and organised functions and apps.
“It is not that older uses cannot use the technology but they don’t like change all the time,” says Doro’s Mr Millington, citing the need to update software in handsets made by Apple as an example.
Japan’s ageing population has similarly driven strong demand for Fujitsu ’s Raku Raku, or “easy-to-use”, phone. Fujitsu has even pioneered a technology that appears to slow down the speech of the caller, while there is also an emergency button to receive help.
This function is mirrored in alarm apps such as AreYouOK and Panic Button, while the BIG Launcher app on android offers a home screen optimised for elderly people that features an SOS function.
The lines between the consumer and the medical users of such apps can be blurred. It is a simple step from Mindings and Silversurfer to more therapeutic options such as My House of Memories – an app designed for people living with dementia – and whentheygetolder.co.uk, a website designed for carers.
The largest seniors market for technology remains healthcare and home monitoring – so-called “m-health” – which is forecast to reach $23.4bn by 2020 globally, according to Transparency Market Research.
Connectivity for the elderly does not just mean to the internet, but also to their friends and families as well as services ranging from the essential to frivolous. Technology is changing lives – making people live longer and more healthily.
The next article in this series will be published on Monday 27 October