Grandma’s not just on Facebook anymore

This post originally appeared on the Pattern Health blog.

My grandma is a bona fide superhero. With 80 looming just around the corner, she can be found traveling the world (that’s right, she’s been to 32 countries since she turned 55), cutting the hair of her husband, sons and grandchildren, paddleboarding on the lake, or knitting blankets for hospice patients. And although I tease her for the size 100 font on her cell phone, she knows how to Bitmoji like nobody’s business (see Exhibit A).

Exhibit A: Screenshot of recent conversation with g-ma.

You might even say that my grandma is tech-savvy. She uses her computer to send email, pay bills, look up recipes and plan her vacations. And she is about as addicted to her devices as anyone else I know. She uses her smartphone and tablet for social media (Facebook and Instagram), games (Words With Friends), music (Pandora), video (Youtube), organizing her calendar, setting reminders and getting around with maps. She called me on FaceTime when I texted her to ask if I could interview her for some specifics around her technology use.

But my grandma is not the only senior citizen who gets down with technology. More than half of Americans over 50 own a smartphone (with 73% of people aged 50-64 using smartphones, compared to 46% of those 65+). According to a report from the AARP (in 2016), the most popular activities that senior citizens spend their time on are “sending email (91%), getting directions/traffic info (79%), getting news (72%), visiting websites (70%), and accessing social media (62%).” Most senior citizens go online at least once a day.


At Pattern Health we’ve worked with hundreds of thousands of app users, many of them senior citizens. And we can attest to the strength of adoption among individuals in their golden years. In a recent study we conducted with heart failure patients where the average age of participants was 57, those who stayed engaged past the first week of the study used the app about 6 days a week over the 6-month study.

With the youngest baby boomers about to turn 55 in 2019, a new wave of tech-savvy senior citizens will be using apps to manage their lives and their health — whether it is to help them track their medication, stick to a physical therapy regimen, or simply chat with their healthcare providers. But to reach their full potential, connected care platforms need to integrate with the context of people’s lives, considering not just the habits of millennials but also, for example, accounting for the lifestyle of someone who doesn’t have to worry about going to school or work or caring for young children, but may be less mobile and have diminishing hearing or eyesight (like my grandma and her 100-size font).

The widespread adoption of smartphones and connected health is timely given the immense opportunity living within our devices. Aside from the many oft-cited benefits of technology, such as the ease at which it can scale across many users, or the cost-effectiveness of each additional patient served  the most promising benefit of smartphone apps is in the power of accessibility. Because grandma has her smartphone with her at all times, it’s that much easier for her loved ones to be at the right place at the right time, or for her app to detect that something is amiss and take action  both automatically and immediately. What better way to help people manage their health than to meet them through the devices that they carry with them everywhere? Now that humans are more attached to their smartphones than they are to their spouses, smartphones are the ideal digital health assistant. The deep level of integration that people have with their devices opens opportunities to assist with their health goals that were never before possible. Smartphones can not only serve as reliable reminder systems  removing the need for people of all ages to rely on their faulty memories  they can even provide that extra motivational boost that people need to stay on track with their health goals.

Because let’s face it. Even superheroes need a little help now and then.
PS: if you are a senior citizen yourself looking to boost your technology skills, here are some resources (click on the links below, and they will take you to the website with the information):

About the author

Aline Holzwarth is an applied behavioral scientist, primarily focusing on digital health research and scientifically informed product design. She is Head of Behavioral Science at Pattern Health, an evidence-based connected care platform that leverages behavioral science to help patients stick to their care plans. She also co-founded the Behavior Shop, a behavioral science advisory company, and holds an appointment as Principal of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, an applied behavioral science lab that helps people be happier, healthier and wealthier, at home and abroad.