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Growing older in a digital world

Does your grandmother use Skype or text messaging, and if not, is she missing out on something?

By SHARON HUNT | December 3, 2014

Kim Sawchuk is surprised that, despite the wide proliferation of digital technologies that help keep us in touch and in-for-med, there hasn’t until now been a large-scale research project that looks at how older people experience life in our digital world.

A professor in Concordia University’s department of communication studies and a director of the department’s Mobile Media Lab, she has been awarded a partnership grant of $3 mil-lion from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for a seven-year project to investigate aging and digital technology. Entitled “Ageing, Communication, Technologies: Experiencing a Digital World in Later Life,” this major initiative brings together 18 collaborators, 12 universities, seven research institutes and seven community partners.

Dr. Sawchuk’s interest in the topic came 20 years ago when she interviewed her grandmother about her life, using a digital camera to record her responses. When the interview was over, the 82-year-old surprised her by grabbing the camera and reversing roles. Dr. Sawchuk thought her grandmother might be intimidated by the camera but her eagerness to use it forced her to rethink what she knew, or thought she knew, about how one experiences the digital world later in life.

Older people want to share their experiences, she says. Even if they don’t own a cell phone or a computer, they are affected by how such technology is changing their social environment and relationships with family and friends. “These conversations have shifted our perspective. Instead of asking what do they have to learn from us, we can also ask what we can learn about our fascination with digital media from older populations?”

The project provides an opportunity for university students and older adults to come together and break down generational barriers and assumptions, says Dr. Sawchuk, such as the assumption that younger people have a natural affinity for new technologies and older ones do not, which is not always true.

What is true is each generation’s need to communicate, but how does the use of digital technologies influence how the generations interact? “We want to ask questions that do not dismiss or ignore older people’s experiences,” says Dr. Sawchuk. “After all, we are all aging.”

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