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Senior school: science Class
Source: Claire O'Mahony

Virtual reality, 3D printing, wearables, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, smart homes, social media, on demand services, the Internet of Things… You don't have to be 50-plus to feel overwhelmed by the modern world of technology. Whatever your age, it often seems that just as you get used to one device or platform, something new comes along - like last week's announcement by Apple that it will use facial recognition to unlock its next iPhone, which will feature new apps using 'mixed reality' - and the learning curve has to start all over again.

Virtual reality, 3D printing, wearables, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, smart homes, social media, on demand services, the Internet of Things… You don't have to be 50-plus to feel overwhelmed by the modern world of technology. Whatever your age, it often seems that just as you get used to one device or platform, something new comes along - like last week's announcement by Apple that it will use facial recognition to unlock its next iPhone, which will feature new apps using 'mixed reality' - and the learning curve has to start all over again.

Arguably, the older demographic has as much, if not more to gain from technology than its younger cohorts. "Technology holds great promise to make life better for many groups, including older people," says Ciaran McKinney, Manager of Active Citizenship and Lifelong Learning, for the national positive ageing organisation Age & Opportunity. "It can be used to enable them to retain their independence, to help people to continue to engage in their communities. It can also help them in monitoring their health and act as a preventative tool, while for some groups of older people it can also lend a helping hand to those who care for them."

Digital literacy can be considered the jumping-off point for expanding your knowledge of technology: once you're online, the world is your oyster.

According to CSO figures released last year, only 32pc of the 60-74 years age group access the internet every day, in comparison to 92pc of 16-29 year-olds. But there is a push to get all citizens online and organisations such as Third Age and Age Action run free nationwide classes for 55-plusers to teach them basic online skills.

According to Helen Murray, Development Officer with Age Action in Galway, communication is important to participants on these courses - whether that's sending emails or texts and Skype, as well as keeping up with global news; using Google and YouTube videos for tutorials and connecting to the outside world for people who may be isolated. For those who belong to various clubs and organisations, it's a useful way to keep in touch with what's going on.

"There are people who feel that this era has passed them by or they're too old for it. I tell people who are in their early 70s that they could have another 15 years ahead of them so you really need to embrace it at this point," Murray says.

If you are still part of the workforce, it's important to keep up-skilling and keeping up to speed with any new tech in your field. Especially because it's possible you might be working for longer than you had anticipated, given the Economic and Social Research Institute's recent recommendation that the State pension age be raised to 70 years old.

Niamh O'Brien, business director for Irish Recruitment Consultants, says that technology impacts on every part of our working lives and that developments like accessibility 24/7, virtual office spaces and access to people's digital footprint have changed everything.

"While Generation X and Generation Y have grown up witnessing and adjusting to this speed of change, it requires concerted effort from older generations to not just keep abreast of changing technology but also be prepared for how this can impact general working conditions," she says. "As tasks continually migrate online, it is no longer an option to 'opt out' of technological advancement and active engagement is becoming an essential part of every working life."

Her advice is to be open to learning from everyone. "There are plenty of online courses but just by engaging with children and grandchildren about what apps they are using, and how they are using them, will open up a whole new world," O'Brien says. "Where Skype may be used to keep in contact with family, it is also becoming more prevalent in working environments - Skype for Business and Skype Conferencing. New technologies will keep coming so we just need to embrace the change."

However, whether you're a technophile in your 70s who is considering dropping €1,179 on the new iPhone X or you're in your late 50s and you don't really understand WiFi, it's a case of being aware of and open to the possibilities that technology can bring to life, as opposed to feeling that you need to jump on board every technological development - or join SnapChat.

Age & Opportunity's Ciaran McKinney points out that older people are not a homogeneous group. "Among the older people who participate in our programmes we see a range of skills, experiences and access to devices is also diverse. Therefore to successfully engage older people and develop their knowledge and skill sets, it is important to tailor the contents of what is taught to suit the goals and needs of older people," he says.

"It is also important to consult older people themselves when creating technological tools for their needs. Adapting technology is important, but being able to access that technology is also critical. Many areas in Ireland still don't have access to broadband, and there are costs involved in purchasing devices in order to avail of services. So it's important not to ignore the wide range of factors surrounding older people's access to both technology and training."

Below are some of the areas in which engaging with technology can be of most benefit to 'silver surfers'.

Staying connected with family and friends

Keeping in contact with loved ones is something often very important to older people and free video calling - through the likes of the aforementioned Skype or FaceTime, available on iPhones - allows people to see and talk to grandchildren, for example, who might be halfway across the world.

According to Aine Phelan, Head of Consumer Insight and Marketing with Irish Smart Ageing Exchange (ISAX), using WhatsApp - the free-to-download messaging app which allows you to send texts, images, audio and video at a very low cost - is growing significantly for this age group as well, while research shows that 69pc of Irish adults have a Facebook account.

"It's a bit of a myth to think that people who are 50-plus are not astute at all when it comes to digital and social media," she says. "We know from our research that 84pc of this age group are shopping online and that's well up from last year's figure of 79pc. We know that they're digitally engaged and if anything the digital dynamic for this age group seems to be accelerating."

ISAX, which was set up in 2015 in response to increased life expectancy, brings together businesses, academia and government agencies to develop solutions to improve the quality life as we age. The network's endeavours could result in a new social media platform dedicated to older people. This summer, ISAX, alongside Lero, the Irish Software Research Centre and IBM Ireland, announced a two-year research programme for the platform, which would allow older people to offer and receive volunteer services, make new friends and interact with the wider community.

Connected living

In terms of everyday life, recent technological advancements can certainly help life run more smoothly and efficiently. The Internet of Things (IoT) - where everyday devices, from your lighting to your coffee machine, are connected to your smartphone and to each other via the internet - sounded like science fiction a few years ago, but it's now a fact. Connected appliances can let you do anything from look inside your fridge, to let an app choose the washing machine programme that will work best for your load of laundry.

One hugely popular application of IoT is home heating. The WiFi-enabled thermostat Nest, for example - which is available to buy on its own and is also offered by some Irish energy providers - allows you to turn on and off your heating and to change the temperature using a mobile or tablet. It also manages your hot water tank, auto-adjusts the temperature when you leave the house and learns from your schedule so that it programs itself.


This is another area where technology offers peace of mind. You might already be familiar with home security system PhoneWatch, but you may not be aware that it now comes with an app so that you can check on your tablet or smartphone as to whether you've put the alarm on, turn it on and off when you're not home, monitor user activity and even read the temperatures in rooms.


One of the key benefits that technology can bring an older demographic is the ability to live longer and stay healthy in their own homes. For many, technology means increased independence and safety.

According to falls screening prevention and monitoring service, Falls Action, each year one in three people aged 65 and over will suffer a fall. For those at high risk, Falls Action offers a 24/7 medical monitoring service worn in a small pendant, with two-way voice communications and GPS to ensure ease of location in case of a fall.

If you're concerned about a loved one, wander and GPS alarms can keep track of them at all times. Movement sensors and personal health care monitoring devices - such as the Beats Medical app developed by Ireland's Best Young Entrepreneur Dr Ciara Clancy for Parkinson's patients - are commonly employed. And healthcare 'wearables', from fitness trackers like Fitbit, to sensors that can detect biomarkers of disease and, in theory, eliminate the need for blood tests, look set to play a big role in the future.

Voice Control

For those who really want to stay ahead in the tech game, voice control is the way forward. While some may already employ it to use their smartphone or smart TV, systems such as the Amazon Echo are the next big thing in home technology. This Bluetooth speaker connects to the Alexa Voice Service and you can ask Alexa questions like, 'What's the weather in Cork?'; tell her to play music and control your smart home devices, all via your voice.

It's got obvious benefits for those whose mobility may be impaired as they age, and fans of Alexa have also described the device as becoming something of a companion. Although Amazon will not deliver it directly to Ireland, it can be bought on Amazon UK and you can then use a service like Parcel Motel to get it sent here.

TECH TIP: Many people don't know that you can use your phone as a WiFi machine for a laptop or a tablet you have. On an iPhone, it's called 'personal hotspot' in 'settings'. On an Android phone such as a Samsung, it's called 'mobile hotspot' or 'tethering', again located in settings. Once you tap it on, your laptop can use it as a WiFi hotspot by entering the phone's hotspot password (also located in settings).
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1 Belkin WeMo (€50 from Argos)

For those who want to dip a toe in 'smart home' technology without significant cost, this is a great gadget. It's a plug that connects to your home WiFi so that you can control whatever's plugged in from your phone. In other words, once you've downloaded the free WeMo app, you can switch things like lamps, TVs, radios or anything else on and off. It's a great solution for security or for setting things up in advance of you entering a room.

2 Kobo Aura One (€250 from Argos)

For older people, the trouble with e-readers is that almost all of them have pretty small screens - not much bigger than a modern smartphone. That means if you need to increase the size of the font on the screen, you only get a few lines per screen, interrupting your reading flow. One exception is Kobo's Aura One. While still light and thin, its screen is 8in across, resulting in a display that's around 50pc bigger than that of a standard Kindle. It holds 5,000 ebooks, which can be bought from its own online store that's accessible from the device. (This has just about as many titles as Amazon has for the Kindle.) It's also waterproof and has a backlit screen, meaning you don't need a reading light for it.

3 Nest security camera (€199 from Currys)

This connects to your home WiFi and lets you have a look at what's going on in your home from your phone. It also has motion detectors that send your phone alerts if any movement is detected. It even stores video clips for you online so that it can't be gotten around simply by being smashed.

4 Google Home (€150 from

Voice control is one of the fastest-growing areas in home technology at the moment. Many people know how it works with their iPhone ("hey Siri") or Android ("okay Google"). Google's Home gadget connects to your WiFi and answers questions (weather, travel and anything Google can answer itself) through its web connection. At an advanced level, it can also work with smart home devices that are connected to your home WiFi.

5 Apple Watch Series 3 (€379)

One benefit to Apple's 'smart watch' is that its sensors are increasingly being focused on health information. For example, it will now alert users if their heart rate seems abnormal when not working out or exercising.

6 iPhone 6S Plus (€649 or from free with mobile operators)

Older people in Ireland are now flocking to smartphones to keep up with family and friends through services such as Facebook and Whatsapp. But they may be stuck with small screens, which can be fiddly and difficult to see clearly. Apple recently reduced the price of its iPhone 6S Plus, which is one of the best big-screen phones you can get.

7 Smart home thermometer (price varies)

Smart home thermometers connect to your heating and allow you to control everything from your phone (via an app). In Ireland, they range from Nest to Climote to Netamo. You do have to have them professionally installed, however.

8 Wiser launcher app (free)

This is a pensioner-friendly app that transforms the phone's normal interface into an extremely basic screen with photos of family members. Tap a family member and it calls their phone. It's the kind of thing a two-year-old could probably figure out.


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