Seniors, technology and social action

By Kathy Smith

“To me, Radical Retirement is a positive and passionate attitude towards aging that encourages internet literacy and activism and other creative civic engagement strategies to involve and empower older adults. We become less isolated, more energized, and more involved with our communities, resulting in a feeling of connectivity, support, and sense of purpose. We can use technology to bring awareness to important issues like seniors’ poverty.”

Riding the Wave

I am a “Leading Edge” Baby Boomer (1946 – 1955). In my 70’s and beyond, I’m planning to be retired and radical. Boomers on this leading edge are said to be passionate idealists and social activists. Their younger siblings share some of that idealism in many areas, but they are more pragmatic and some would say, realistic.

Over the past decades, I’ve seen a lot of changes and, because of my demographic birthplace alone, I’ve been on the forefront of many social and cultural changes. Lately, I feel like I’m riding a high-tech surfboard – just skipping across the crest of that big Silver Tsunami rolling towards the shore.  In my mind, that surfboard is my MacBook Air and the crest is called the aging population. As an idealist and pragmatic community activist, I see how older adults can not only be this significant social change, we can still lead the way. In the 1960’s, we started an anti-establishment Youth Counter Culture — now, we are redefining a new Culture of Aging.

“Silver Tsunami”

This seems to be the preferred term used to describe the demographic wave caused by the aging boomers. To me, the term could also be a metaphor for a few other things I explore in my presentations :

– The oncoming convergence of new technologies

– The looming threat of more economic plunges and uncertainties

– The possibility of ill health resulting from the stress of transitions along the life course

– The opportunities and options available

Troubled Waters

Some older adults are just trying to keep a few feet in front of any number of circumstances that can wipe them out. I think there are many older women on the brink of poverty but you’d never know it by looking at them. They had their vulnerability.

Many will remember the 1980’s when interest rates exploded without warning. It wasn’t more than five years ago, many lost almost 50% of their retirement savings. That’s the wave we’re riding right now. I’m reminded of the cliché, “every crisis is an opportunity in disguise”. Should anything happen, we don’t have a lot of time for a course correction. We’re acutely aware – the risks are there and we are vulnerable.

A Lifeline

Technology can serve as a lifeline. My work connects me with many futurists and technical experts who provide insights on the exciting changes in technology that will roll out over the next  5-10 years. Read Peter Diamandis’ predictions for the next 10 years. I’m interested in the challenges associated with changing social and economic policies, improving health and communications for the elderly, aging workers and those caring for aging parents. Social networking and home-based systems will also assist the millions of baby boomers who will be balancing later life careers with caregiving.

Just as Boomers are aging beyond their mid-life years, social media is providing new opportunities to ride the technology wave to tell our stories, collaborate, organize, and have a voice in local issues.  In my hometown, we realize many older adults find it difficult or sometimes impossible to attend important civic and cultural events. Using technology and social media, we are developing strategies to stream these events to their community centres and retirement homes. Those who are at risk of social isolation can be part of the markeplace of ideas and feel part of the arts and cultural fabric of our community.

If we choose to do so, we are positioned (yet again) to make significant social change – and changes impacting our quality of life and individual rights.

I don’t believe the funding will be available for many of our quality of life needs in healthcare and housing. The population is aging and the tax base is shrinking. If we don’t make some important changes for ourselves, who will? Our children and grandchildren have challenges and concerns of their own. I’m still an uppity and rebellious teenage girl at heart.

Those who have mobility and other health issues can still have a voice in the marketplace of ideas. Adaptive and assistive technologies are game changers. New ergonomic and assisted devices will help offset the normal impairments associated with aging. Service robots and healthcare technologies will radically change homecare.  Computer activities are also reported to boost brain power. Recently developed Cloud and Web Socket API protocol will make it easier for older adults to organize, send, and receive information. Boomers can be tuned in and turned on for a much, much longer period of time.

The Reservoir

And why not? We bring decades of experience and an abundance of deep wisdom from our failures and successes. After years of work and volunteering, we have advanced skills and have made lots of connections. We can use technology and social media to create, connect, consult, inform, ask important questions, and promote community dialogues to create change.

Fluid Networks

While most seniors’ organizations are wellsprings of resources, many are registered charities, thus limiting their ability to engage in any controversy or serious advocacy. CARP and AARP diligently work on important national issues. So, we must also advocate for ourselves– a fired-up spirit we boomers personify – establish and maintain a variety of fluid networks, exchange ideas, explore hunches, find solutions and, ultimately, help transform our local communities and ourselves in the process.

Diving In

With the convergence of the new user-friendly technologies and a new generation of highly educated and tech-savvy seniors with time to spare, things can change. These are exciting times of promise! Is it a radical idea to harness that energy for more social change?

Leading Edge Boomers are surfing the edge of that demographic wave preparing the way for the millions in our wake. Using technology, we are building virtual community centres without walls. Once again, we can tune in, turn on, and we’ll decide when it’s time to drop out….


Kathy Smith is the founder and coordinator of the London Creative Age Network. She works with local organizations to develop programs to improve the quality of life for older adults in the community.