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Analog Aging in a Digital World

In a high-tech age, there are some traditional values about aging that are worth retaining.


There was a time not too long ago when, if you stopped a stranger on the street to ask for the time, that person might reach into a pocket or purse, pull out a smart phone, and give you the answer. Unless he or she was wearing an old-fashioned wristwatch. In that case, it required only a glance at the wrist to come up with the answer.

In those days, I tended to feel a little smug for being a watch-wearer who could relay the time so quickly without having to use my hands to dig for a device. But soon many people began wearing their smart phones like additional appendages, gazing into them, texting, playing games, checking out apps, all while walking down the street or riding public transportation. My time-telling edge was gone, since they already had the answer literally at their fingertips. But my hands were still free.

This phenomenon has led me to think about the benefits of adhering to a few analog ways of aging in the world, despite all the digital progress that’s been made. Don’t get me wrong: Like most older adults, I’m not against embracing technology –– a malicious and false stereotype applied to us, although we overwhelmingly continue to adapt to constant challenge and change all around us, including becoming highly proficient in using social media and the latest computer software. What I am advocating is that we become much more discriminating about which current trends we follow and which we reject. While digital advances are meant to save us time and/or the inconvenience of effort, it seems that as a society we keep throwing out the traditional baby with the bathwater every time a new cultural development occurs, just because it’s new.

Here are a few examples of analog values we should retain that relate directly to aging:

Considering older adults as individuals rather than as memes or caricatures. Our reliance on time- and effort-saving high technologies has trained us to look for and accept the quickest and most expedient solutions to problems, regardless of whether or not those solutions are effective or even realistic. Our culture has become more comfortable creating and buying into stereotypes of aging and assigning cookie-cutter characteristics to older adults, despite the sociological fact that as the members of any generation get older, they become more diverse in experiences, beliefs, lifestyles, and goals. It takes much more time and effort to see each elder as a unique person rather than as a greedy geezer, an old codger, a spry exception, or a needy soul marking time until death. Taking shortcuts is quite handy; it just doesn’t reflect what’s real.

Accepting aging as a natural process. All of us are aging. The only question is whether and how we are acknowledging that fact. Rebelling against the notion that our bodies will eventually wear out leads many of us to seek out certain products and services created and foisted on us by the multi-billion-dollar anti-aging movement. Often these options resemble software upgrades that cause more problems than they solve. Sometimes it’s wiser to employ an earlier, simpler version that better suits our purpose. That’s not to say that longevity research shouldn’t be done. No doubt, scientists will find more ways of extending our lives, perhaps by several decades, and that’s a good thing only if those extended years are filled with quality and meaning. Meanwhile, we do ourselves an injustice to perceive aging –– and yes, death –– as inherently evil processes to be avoided at all cost.

Serving elders by using a person-centered rather than institutionalized approach. For centuries before the establishment of long-term-care facilities, hospitals, and medical schools, older adults were served on a one-on-one basis by their families and communities who took into account each elder’s specific needs, experiences, assets, and values. Granted, standardized institutional care enabled the sharing of information and skills that helped drastically reduce infections, illnesses, and mortality, but in the process, much of an individual’s autonomy and quality of life were lost. The “one size fits all” approach that makes running a hospital, clinic, or nursing home easier actually demands that “all fit one size,” that the people being served adjust their preferences and behaviors to follow an administration’s rules, unfortunately making the paradigm “one size fits none.”

Ironically, thanks to today’s digital solutions, there’s good news on the aging front. As older adults are demanding greater personalized care, including more options to age in place, technology is being applied toward these purposes. More companies are designing hardware and software that monitor an elder’s safety and health at home. More physicians, nurses, and other health-care professionals are being retrained to serve their patients using an individual, holistic approach.

Analog needs are driving the digital world, which is how it should be for all people, regardless of age or circumstance. Take the smart watch. You can tell time (and do a whole lot more) just by gazing once again at your wrist. No digging around for a device, no clutching another appendage. Progress best serves us when it’s aligned with an essential, humane, common-sense purpose. Many of us are beginning to get the point.

It’s about time.


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