February 21, 2016, by Bart-Jan van Putten and Carolin Makus
In general, when people grow old, the number of social interactions they have decreases, which is called ‘disengagement’. Disengagement can be desired and undesired, which leads to the question whether product designers should enable or prevent it. In this article we will look at two theories on aging and discuss what they mean for the design of interactive products. (The photo of a turtle is a metaphor: the older we get, the more often we tend to ‘hide in our shells’.)
“The activity theory implies that, except for the inevitable changes in biology and in health, older people are the same as middle-aged with essentially the same psychological and social needs. In this view, the decreased social interaction that characterizes old age results from the withdrawal by society from the aging person; and the decrease in interaction proceeds against the desires of most aging men and women. The older person who ages optimally is the person who stays active and who manages to resist the shrinkage of his social world. He maintains the activities of middle age as long as possible, and then finds substitutes for work when he is forced to retire and substitutes for friends and loved ones whom he loses by death.” (Havighurst, 1968)
In other words, the activity theory implies that most people want to stay active irrespective of their chronological age. However, they may not be able to do so when the environment does not support this need. This may e.g. happen when a person’s children are so busy with their own families and lives that they spend less time with their parents. Another cause are the ‘touch points’ of age-unfriendly products and services, such as tiny text, hard-to-open packaging, complex digital user interfaces and people who speak too fast.
“In the disengagement theory (Cumming & Henry, 1961), on the other hand, the decreased social interaction is interpreted as a process characterized by mutuality; one in which both society and the aging person withdraw, with the aging individual acceptant, perhaps even desirous, of the decreased interaction. (…) in this sense, disengagement is a natural rather than an imposed process. In this view, the older person who has a sense of psychological well-being will usually be the person who has reached a new equilibrium characterized by a greater psychological distance, altered types of relationships, and decreased social interaction with persons around him.” (Havighurst, 1968)
In other words, the disengagement theory implies that seniors’ decreased social interaction is not necessarily forced upon them, but may also be desired by seniors themselves. The older person may prefer the comfort and safety of his/her own home, may want to reflect on his/her life, as it seems to come to an end, or may have the feeling of ‚being done’ with everything.
Implications for product design
Disengagement is not a bad thing per se. The key question around decreased social interaction is thus, if and when it is desired by the senior/user. People will decide (unconsciously) whether they want to do something by themselves or rather through a social interaction. This ‘decision’ will be made case-by-case, based on numerous factors, such as their physical health, recent social interactions, the time of the day, weather conditions, etc.
Product designers can support seniors in coping with situations independently (enable disengagement) or rather encourage seniors to undertake activities which will lead to more social interactions (prevent disengagement). We will now give some examples of products for each of these categories. Please note that the boundary between the two is not always clear and products may actually fall in both categories.
a. Products that enable disengagement
The products and services that fall in this category are those that allow people to do as much as possible from within their homes. For example:
- Order groceries or fresh ingredients online: e.g. Streekbox (NL), beebox (NL), HelloFresh (DE), Kochzauber (DE).
- Online banking (with sufficient usability): e.g. ING (NL), ING-DiBa (DE).
- Order services online, e.g. for hairdressing, housekeeping, gardening, gymnastics: e.g. Dinst (NL), Woonz (NL), Careship (DE), HelloCare (DE).
b. Products that prevent disengagement
The products and services that fall in this category are those that make it more attractive for seniors to leave their homes, or to communicate from their homes to the outside world. For example:
- Casserole Club (UK): a website that connects people who do not want to dine alone with those who offer a seat at their table.
- Familie-linq (NL): a digital photo frame that shows photos uploaded by others. This way, seniors can virtually take part in their family and friends’ experiences.
- Familo (DE): an app that allows the senior to see where his/her family is. It also supports unplanned communication.
- Klup (NL): an app that allows people to meet up for daily activities in order to prevent loneliness.
- Rijp senior werk (NL): finds flexible jobs for senior professionals.
- Seniorbook (DE): a social networking and dating site for people above 50.
- Valys (NL): a service that picks up seniors and brings them to their destinations, via different means of transportation, supervised or unsupervised.
Should designers enable or prevent disengagement?
In the end, seniors will decide what they want and what they are capable of doing. In many cases, they may prefer the ‘disengaged’ alternative. Nevertheless, designers should give seniors the option to go for the more social way (prevent disengagement), e.g. by making sure that the product or service includes a way to facilitate face-to-face communication in the analogue world. At least from an ethical point of view, this seems to be the right approach.
Apart from ethical reasons, there can also be commercial reasons for preventing disengagement, because disengagement may mean loosing customers. Consider the recent announcement by computer retailer ‘Paradigit’ (in Dutch) that its brick-and-mortar stores are bankrupt, but their online business is growing and will continue. What does this mean for seniors? For some of them, it will be fine. They already buy online. For other seniors however, Paradigit was one of the shops where they could go for high quality personal advice (i.e. a social interaction). If Paradigit does not want to loose these customers, it will need to keep offering a way to connect with its customers in-person. Paradigit could for example, offer regular training/support meetings in public spaces. Seniors can bring their tablets, or other technology they bought, meet other seniors and get advice. Surely, this would be a new investment for Paradigit, but it might be a lot cheaper than running brick-and-mortar stores and may be a great value proposition for the growing number of aging customers.
How can designers enable or prevent disengagement?
There are numerous ways. We will give a few general examples here.
- Allow products and services to be ordered via the internet
- Deliver products and services at home
- Provide support via telephone and video telephony
- Include features that allow customers to reflect on their lives, summarize their lives, or organize the ends of their lives
- Operate brick-and-mortar stores, where people can buy, get support and meet other people
- Organize events where customers can share experiences in-person
- Provide in-person support at home
- Include features that allow customers to find and connect with other people electronically, either to maintain relationships or to build new ones
- Cumming E., Dean L.R., Newell D.S., McCaffrey, I. (1960). Disengagement – A Tentative Theory of Aging. Sociometry, Volume 23, Issue 1, Pages 23-35.
- Robert J. Havighurst (1968). Personality and Patterns of Aging. The Gerontologist. Volume 8, Issue 1 Part 2, Pages 20-23.
- Williams R.H., Tibbits C., Donohue W. (1963). Process of Aging: Social and Psychological Perspectives. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.