Do older Americans use smartphones?

Last week I had a conversation with an executive from a health system in the northeast United States. We were discussing health reform and patient engagement when the executive said something I wasn't expecting. 

Seniors don't use smartphones. Their fingers don't work well enough to navigate the screens.

This statement was delivered with such conviction that I found myself wondering if the world was indeed flat. Did I not just see my 72-year old parents using smartphones last weekend? Are seniors not the fastest growing age group of smartphone users?  

He continued:

Mobile devices may seem like a way of life to a young person like you, but the world of the senior citizen is entirely different. I don't believe the mHealth hype. 

I didn't mention that I'm closer in age to a 65 year old than I am to a 20 year old.  While the conversation moved on to more productive topics, I made a note to review the facts and write a data-driven post on smartphone adoption among older Americans.


Underestimating Older Americans

First, while there are certainly some senior citizens who are unable to use a touchscreen, they do not represent the capabilities of all older Americans. (Keep in mind that 74% of seniors own some kind of cell phone.) Touchscreens are arguably easier to use than are the standard PC keyboard-and-mouse interface. Touching a screen is much less abstract than is moving a mouse with your hand on a horizontal plane in order to guide a cursor over an object on a vertical plane. As anyone with small children can tell you, touchscreens require much less dexterity than do keyboards and mice.  


Are these senior citizens physically capable of using a smartphone?


The State of the Savvy Senior in 2013

The most recent information we have is a PewResearch report from May 2013. The report shows that 18% of seniors own smartphones and that 43% of seniors making over $75K own smartphones. Smartphone ownership among 55-64 year-olds is 39% overall and 72% for those making over $75K. 


Smartphone ownership among seniors grew by 38% from 2012 to 2013.


2014 and Three Years Hence 

When Pew updates their report later this year, what will smartphone ownership among seniors look like? We can make an estimation based on growth rate assumptions. Over the last year, did the growth rate of seniors adopting smartphones decelerate from 38% to 25%, stay the same, or accelerate from 38% to 45%? If the growth rate stayed the same, then in 2014 one out of four seniors own a smartphone.  Healthcare folks who actually work with seniors in a clinical setting tell me that they are seeing even higher ownership rates. At modestly decelerating growth rates, the smartphone ownership rate will reach 50% by 2017. Given what we're seeing in the market, we're willing to stand behind these estimates.




What about tablets, you say? Good question. I can't find any credible research that shows the percentage of seniors that own a smartphone or a tablet or both. An unscientific review of the seniors in my family shows a smartphone ownership rate of 50% and a smartphone or tablet ownership rate of 100%. I suspect the ownership rate of tablets or smartphones is higher than that of smartphones alone.


Bottom Line

Those that assume all seniors are unwilling or incapable of using mobile devices to help manage their health are ignoring a vibrant and growing population of patients. I'll leave you with this one factoid. By 1996, AARP, the organization focused on serving the interests of seniors, published a website for its members. You can imagine the argument of the naysayers at the time:  

Less than 1 in 4 Americans of any age use the internet in 1996, much less older people. Seniors don't understand computers and have no interest in going online.  

The rest is history.