Third Age Online: Joining up the Generations

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80,” said car marker Henry Ford, who championed innovation till the age of 83. “Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

This is one of the goals of Third Age Online (TAO), a UNU-MERIT project which aims to keep the elderly active by engaging them online. Here “elderly” refers to anyone over the age of 50, and in some cases even over 100.

One key to building the TAO community, which already has 300,000+ members, is to help seniors help each other online, starting with practical issues like health, welfare and charity work. Another goal is to narrow the gap between generations and therefore ease social integration.

For now TAO focuses on three European countries – Germany, The Netherlands and Switzerland – but it is designed to be transferable and provide a model for older generations around the world. In time this would include emerging economies, where rates of literacy and internet penetration are rising to workable levels.

Above all the project aims to make itself and its services visible and useful for the elderly, who may not fully grasp the interactive nature of the modern web and who typically need more accessibility options, from bigger fonts to crystal clear interfaces .

In this case awareness depends not only on the functionality of the TAO websites but also a clear understanding of what members can do and how they can benefit – hence the focus on charity, community and a growing network of mutual support.

In terms of building communities the experience of one partner stands out. Wikimedia has a great reputation for engaging people of all ages around the world in online collaborative endeavours. Its most famous product, Wikipedia, has become THE online reference tool and the most successful crowdsourcing project of all time, attracting some 350 million unique visitors per month.

Together with project partners like SeniorWeb, as well as Dutch and German universities, TAO is boiling down its combined knowledge into a handbook. A draft version is available below and more updates will be posted in the coming weeks, so watch this space.

Ultimately TAO is building the most user-friendly, accessible and engaging platforms: everything from the most logical user interfaces to surveys, workshops and photo competitions. This means giving the elderly a stake in the project and building a community with their active participation. It means adopting a positive rather than a patronizing approach and accepting that even the slickest of wizz-kids can learn from their older counterparts.

The project runs for three years from October 2010 to September 2013, and has around 3 million euros in funding. Around a half of that is drawn from the European Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) Joint Programme. The project is run from UNU-MERIT by Ruediger Glott and Stijn Bannier, who appears in the audio interview below. Click play to listen in or read on for more details from project coordinator Stijn Bannier.

Who attends TAO workshops?
: The project workshops aim to attract senior organizations, online communities, and of course the combination of online senior communities. This currently involves online senior communities (SeniorWeb Switzerland and the Netherlands) and Wikimedia’s (Switzerland and Germany), which organize their own workshops on how to actively engage seniors online. For example I will be attending a workshop given by SeniorWeb.NL on social networks (Facebook, Hyves, Twitter, Schoolbank, etc.), where I’ll observe how senior teachers are trained and how teachers then train SeniorWeb members.

– What are the specific needs of seniors? What are the challenges?
Bannier: A study of early users over 60 years old found they are often frustrated by the usability of online communities, i.e. layout, accessibility, and related barriers. These barriers tend to create negative emotions in early users which are then attributed to the online community as a whole. So efforts to motivate older people to join have to address existing counterarguments and stereotypes. Most helpful are positive role models who share the same  values, beliefs, interests, age, and level of education with potential new community members. People they can relate to. This approach requires a detailed definition of the target group so that persuasive messages can be tailored accordingly. Simple exposure to an online community is not sufficient for motivation and integration. We need to carefully match personal interests and desires with the online community.

– What do you mean by a “model for older generations around the world”?
SB: ‘Example’ might be a better word. Since the three involved countries are ahead in the area of digital inclusion, innovation and the developing online senior communities, the project partners can offer best practices for other countries, where on the one hand digital inclusion is still an issue and on the other hand aging is not yet an issue.

– Can you give an outline of the handbook?
Bannier: It will be a handbook for online-communities and operators of community platforms, containing effective strategies for improved inclusion of older persons in online communities (with a focus on older persons’ motivation and inclusion). You can follow the online creation of the handbook (and a first draft outline) here.

– Are you making use of data collection studies for accessibility, usability labs, or persona defining?
Bannier: Regarding accessibility and usability, Subproject 2 (software development) of the project is looking into a number of potentially useful aspects.

– How is TAO different from other initiatives like UrbAct or GetYourFolksonline?
Bannier: Where the latter two initiatives aim at getting seniors online, our project aims at engaging them online. TAO focuses on developing and rolling out measures to promote older persons’ participation in online communities. Thus, activating, engaging and mobilizing online seniors to make the most of Web 2.0 and all the possibilities of user-generated content, interaction and participation.


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