Villagers connecting with tech

Ted Wright, of the Village of Bridgeport at Laurel Valley, uses electronic devices to run security systems and other controls in his home. He runs a tech club, Connected Villager.

When Yang Shen pulls up to his house, the carriage lights automatically illuminate.

And to keep his west-facing lanai from getting too warm from the setting sun, the shades are programmed to go down at a certain time each day.

He’s a fan of home automation devices, which were one of the top tech products purchased by older Americans in the past year.

With purchases like these, seniors are helping drive the tech industry, according to a recent study from AARP. The organization reported in January that 51% of older Americans purchased a tech product, such as a safety device, smart home technology, wearable device and/or a virtual assistant, in the last year.

“Developers of these products and/or the apps they run are catering to older consumers through new products and services that are particularly attractive to (them) and because they are marketing to the 50-plus population more effectively,” said Jeff Johnson, state director for AARP Florida. “This is all smart business as older consumers are very much a force in what we and others call the ‘longevity economy.’”

Boost in tech club membership

In The Villages, Gregg Cieslak has seen a surge in attendance at the Science and Technology Club meetings.

Cieslak, the club’s administrator, estimates the club has grown by about 10% over the past year as Villagers are wanting to learn how their gadgets work.

The club meets twice a month to offer presentations on technical subjects, and the Village of Hemingway resident said people show up to participate in everything from medical presentations to ones that cover virtual assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa.

“The population is up,” he said. “There seems to be a more general interest. There’s a lot of people who are more knowledgeable, and they come in more aware of the topics. Now there’s people who know what you’re talking about, so we’re drawing a bigger crowd.”

He said there’s an excitement that’s associated with technology.

“How does Alexa know how to talk with you?” he said. “It’s awe-inspiring.”

Club members are interested in what’s going on under the shiny covers of their devices.

“Certainly, the devices make life convenient for people, and (residents) are trying to understand how they work so they can use them better and more efficiently,” Cieslak said. “You need to know how they work to know how to make them work for you.”

Participation also has jumped in the Hands-on Tech club that Shen facilitates to about 50% more members than last year. He said Villagers also are taking more of an interest in the technical aspects of 3-D printing and building small computers, which is the focus of his club.

And every two months members with the Connected Villager club set up workshop tables for Villagers to bring in their new gadgets and get information on how to operate them.

“People come in after the holidays with their boxed gifts from their kids and grandkids and ask ‘How do I use this?’” said Ted Wright, club founder and facilitator.

The gadgets usually range from digital assistants to tablets, wearable devices and routers.

Smart home technology

Home automation can be tailored to particular interests, including security. For Shen, it’s about convenience.

Shen is tech-savvy, with an engineering background and a career that centered on product innovation. At his Village of Collier home, he is a prolific user of home automation.

“For me, it’s more along the lines of turning lights on when I enter a room,” he said.

It’s common for users to be unaware of what it means to “control their homes,” Wright said. His Samsung SmartThings device is an example; it integrates all of his smart home technology into one control tower.

“With that, I can control the front door, the lights and the televisions,” said the Village of Bridgeport at Laurel Valley resident.

That means if someone approaches his doorway, the outside lights turn on and a message is sent to him on his phone through a DoorCam, a wireless camera that can transmit a video of the activity at the door to its owner. 

“If I’m not home, I can know someone’s coming or someone’s been there or a package has been dropped off,” he said. “I had a friend stop by the other day to help me do something, so I spoke to him on the DoorCam.”

He also touts the benefits of digital assistants.

“(You) can ask it questions and get answers to things easily, like the time, the weather, what’s happening nearby,” he said. “You tell it whatever you want. (Users) can control their homes, their televisions; it’s all Alexa-enabled.”

Privacy concerns

Although they are purchasing more new tech items, seniors remain wary of security.

One of the reasons many seniors don’t take full advantage of new technology is that they are concerned about privacy, according to AARP. Only 14% report being extremely or very confident that what they do online is private.

To ensure security for online transactions, Wright tells club members to provide a different password for each individual account. That way a hacker can’t easily access multiple things.

He also suggests users incorporate at least 10 characters per password — one uppercase, one lowercase, with one number and one special symbol — and making up words for passwords because hackers often use dictionary entry words.

These tricks will render the password too difficult to hack, so the perpetrator will move on, he said.

When asked whether it’s important for older people to embrace certain technology, Johnson, with AARP, said there are some things to consider.

“I’d say the questions worth asking are whether a particular form of tech makes life easier for you,” he said. “Does it help you live a healthier life? Does it help you feel safe? Does it allow you to better connect with friends, family and the world around you? Does it make life easier and more comfortable? If the answers to these sorts of questions are ‘yes’ then it’s probably worth evaluating whether the benefits outweigh the costs.”

Staff Writer Julie Butterfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5254, or julie.butterfield@thevillagesmedia.com.