Using the Smartphone to Support Successful Aging: Technology Acceptance with Selective Optimization and Compensation Among Older Adults

  • Yao SunEmail author
  • Margaret L. McLaughlin
  • Michael J. Cody
Conference paper
Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNCS, volume 9754)


Aging populations and the rapid dissemination of technological innovations both underscore the importance of the use and adoption of new technologies among older adults. Most studies have focused primarily on the barriers older adults face in adopting new technologies without paying much attention to how seniors might purposefully make use of new technologies to handle age-related changes. In this study, we filled both theoretical and empirical gaps by focusing on the roles smartphones might play in helping older adults handle challenges in their daily lives. Drawing upon a web-based survey of older adults 55–75 years old, our study revealed that having a positive attitude is key to successful aging and that this positive attitude toward aging motivates the elderly to utilize smartphones to compensate for aging-related deficits in daily life. We conclude our paper with a discussion of the theoretical implications of these results and directions for future research.


Aging Smartphone Deficit Technology acceptance Selective optimization with compensation 

1 Introduction

Since the last century, a substantial increase in life expectancy in conjunction with the post-World War II population bulge has created a large proportion of older adults living in the United States. According to the World Population Ageing 2013 report1 published by the United Nations, from 2013 to 2050, the number of people aged 60 years or older is expected to increase from 841 million to over 2 billion. Despite the inevitable diseases and declines that are commonly associated with aging, the elderly can increasingly live independently and support themselves in many aspects of life. Like other developmental stages in life, aging can be successfully traversed. For example, although one experiences losses in some domains of functioning as one ages, one also enjoys growing wisdom. From young to old adulthood, what people tend to want in life dramatically changes [12]. Considering biological and environmental conditions, individuals increasingly seek to balance losses rather than strive for higher-level goals.

Aging populations and the rapid dissemination of technological innovations together underscore the importance of the use and adoption of new technologies among older adults; however, most studies have focused only on the barriers older adults face in adopting new technologies without paying much attention to how these older adults might purposefully make use of new technologies to better handle their age-related challenges. We filled these theoretical and empirical gaps in the present study by focusing on the roles smartphones might play in how older adults approach their specific challenges in daily life.

2 Technology Acceptance Among Older Adults

The technology acceptance model (TAM) is one of the fundamental and influential theories to explain how individuals adopt and use new technologies. Proposed by Davis in 1989, this model is based on the theory of reasoned action [14] and has been expanded to a number of different topics and research areas.

The perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use of new technologies are two fundamental attitudinal constructs in the TAM [10]. Perceived usefulness is the degree to which an individual’s performance is enhanced by adopting a new technology, while perceived ease of use refers to how effortless an individual finds adopting and using a new technology. Previous studies have confirmed the positive impacts of perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use on actual technology use. Although originally aimed at investigating Internet use, the TAM has been further developed and widely employed to examine the use of cellphones and smartphones [26, 28, 34].

The TAM has also been expanded to study continuing users, e.g., some studies surveyed current users of mobile Internet and found that both perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use positively predicted their intention to continue using the given technology [22]. Similarly, the results of earlier studies that investigated mixed types of users showed the positive effects of these two key constructs on both initial adoption and continued use of telemedicine technology [23]. Other studies have demonstrated similar effects on the adoption and use of email [1], online shopping systems [18], and online investing technologies [27]. Taken together, i.e., for both initial adoption and continued use of a new technology, both perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use strongly influence attitudes toward new technologies.

3 Attitudes Toward Aging: Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

Several specific terms have been coined to describe the physical, psychological, and cognitive characteristics of human aging [6, 21]. For example, “pathological” aging is used to describe aging-related chronic disease states [40], whereas “normal” aging refers to aging that occurs without disease or disability, but with the loss of some general functions [4]. “Usual” or “successful” aging emphasizes a state in which symptoms of diseases are not exhibited, but some physical or cognitive changes are experienced [40]. More specifically, “successful” aging has been conceptualized as aging with a “low risk of disease and disease-related disability; high mental and physical functioning; and active engagement with life” (p. 38) [41]. In other words, aging is not necessarily negative; people can be proactive in response to growing old. As older adults successfully manage aging, they develop new attitudes toward aging and discover new possibilities available to them.

A growing body of literature has shown that older people tend to have different perceptions of aging [31]. On the one hand, early research tended to presume aging to be negative; therefore, such research focused on the inevitability of losses and fear of death [7, 30, 31]. Some research has found that older adults tend to develop negative self-stereotypes and perceive themselves as being less able in many domains of functioning [32]. Conversely, to take one example, scholars interviewed 32 long-term care residents regarding their perceptions of aging, finding that participants perceived aging as successful. Their approaches to successful aging were identified as being adaptive to change, not letting things get them down, and never giving up hope for a better situation [20]. Likewise, other studies also demonstrated that engaging with friends and learning to cope with change were crucial in achieving successful aging [11].

Previous studies have also found that the perception older adults have of aging is distinct from impairment. For instance, studies have found that such perceptions of aging are related to but independent of specific experiences of impairments and deficits [43]. Research studies have also explored subjective aging-related deficits. According to these subjective reports, aging may cause several functional changes, such as memory decline [8] or vision impairment [24].

For older adults, technology can be viewed as both good and bad. Some individuals perceive many unavoidable barriers to the use and adoption of new technologies. Due to physical impairments or psychological resistance, these aging adults may try to circumvent new technologies. For example, a loss of flexibility or a decline in one’s hearing may hinder the use and adoption of new technologies [39]. Conversely, new technologies can present new opportunities for learning and socializing. Studies have reported that when seniors are taught how to use computers, their psychological barriers diminish such that they are more willing to engage in the virtual world [13]. Other research indicated that social networks play a critical role in promoting Internet use by seniors, since the elderly still want to maintain social relationships [25]. Numerous studies have confirmed that older adults are more willing to use new technologies when they are in positive psychological states or need to complete routine daily tasks. Therefore, we offer the hypotheses below.

H1a: Older people with positive attitudes toward aging are more likely to have positive attitudes toward smartphones as compared to those with negative attitudes toward aging.

H1b: Older people who perceive themselves as having aging-related deficits are more likely to have positive attitudes toward smartphones as compared to those not having this perception.

H2: Older people with positive attitudes toward aging perceive fewer deficits as compared to those who have negative attitudes toward aging.

4 Successful Aging: Selective Optimization with Compensation

Unlike most conventional gerontology research, the meta-model of selective optimization with compensation (SOC) views the late stage of life as a satisfying period. In this model, adaptive and successful aging are proposed with a focus on how older people make decisions in their daily lives through selection, optimization, and compensation [5].

In laying the foundation for this model, Baltes and Baltes (1990) depicted the aging process as occurring “under development-enhancing and age-friendly environmental conditions” (p. 8) and integrated this process into goal-oriented personal development. Taking a global view based on this integration, the SOC model argues that individuals across all life stages manage their life development through three processes, i.e., selection, optimization, and compensation. Selection, by definition, refers to setting goals. Individuals face a broad range of alternatives and domains of functioning throughout their entire lives; hence, focusing on a few specific goals will help them take better advantage of available resources to reach personal objectives.

Two types of selection have been identified, i.e., elective and loss-based selection [15]. Elective selection aims at reaching a desired state or goal, such as knowing what to pursue in one’s career and what to avoid. Loss-based selection refers to consequential behaviors that stem from experiencing a possible loss of particular maintaining functions. For example, one may stop taking part in sports when one’s legs hurt.

Optimization is tightly linked to goal-oriented means, such as focusing on a few very important goals and devoting oneself completely to them. Compensation is defined as “the use of alternative means to maintain a given level of functioning when specific goal-relevant means are no longer available” (p. 644) [15]. In other words, to maintain a certain level of functioning requires the availability of compensatory means such that individuals can substitute lost means for new ones.

SOC-related behaviors have been tested in many studies on aging and life-management issues. For example, studies have found that the elderly employ SOC, because doing so enables them to reach better states of functioning, such as memory and locomotor functioning [6, 33]. Similarly, Freund (2006) compared younger and older adults by using a sensorimotor task, demonstrating that the older participants, in contrast to the younger ones, were more persistent in terms of compensation versus optimization. Based on a postural control task comparison between older and younger adults, some studies have also reported an extension of SOC to include pathologic aging research [38]. In other words, as people age, they tend to stop pursuing a “better” state, but rather compensate to maintain an existing state that may not be the best, yet seems fine to the individual. Instead, of striving for gains, people start to counteract their losses as they step into the later stages of life. Previous literature has confirmed that SOC is at work in regulating the behaviors of the aging. Therefore, combined with technology acceptance and attitudes toward aging, we proposed the two hypotheses below.

H3a: Older people who have positive attitudes toward aging are more likely to use smartphones as compared to those who have negative attitudes toward aging.

H3b: Older people who perceive themselves as having aging-related deficits are more likely to use smartphones as compared to those who do not have this perception.

5 Method

Our methodology centered on a web-based Qualtrics survey completed by 160 participants 55 years of age and older. Of this group, 60.6 % were between the ages of 55 and 65 and 39.4 % were between the ages of 66 and 75. Males and females constituted 38.5 % and 60.9 % of the participants, respectively. With respect to geographical regions, all within the United States, 36.6 % of the participants were from the South, followed by 23 % from the West, 21.7 % from the Midwest, and 18 % from the Northeast. Regarding smartphone use, 52.8 % of the participants were current smartphone users, while 46 % were non-users. Data analysis for this study was mainly based on 85 smartphone users. Data were collected on other demographic indicators, including marital status, employment status, and living arrangements. Except for the demographic questions, all of the questions were randomized during distribution.

The respondents were asked to assess their current statuses with respect to several possible areas of age-related decline, including vision, hearing, mobility, and memory. If they noted that they had experienced changes in one or more of these areas, they were then asked to indicate strategies they use to face any resulting daily challenges, e.g., using their smartphones for online shopping if their mobility was impaired or taking notes on their smartphones to support their own memory. Strategies proposed as alternatives included non-technological solutions (e.g., having a family member shop for me), as well as simply opting not to pursue the given activities.

5.1 Measures

Attitude toward Aging.

The attitude toward aging items were each measured on a five-point Likert Scale, including such statements as “I am as happy now as when I was younger” and “Things keep getting better than I thought as I get older.” The items were adopted from several prior studies on the self-perception of aging [30, 42] with a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.848.

Perceived Aging Deficits.

The perceived aging deficit items measured attitudes toward aging-related deficits, showing the degree to which the individuals perceived that they had certain types of aging-related deficits. Items were adopted from several subjective tests regarding vision, hearing, memory, and motion impairments [8, 24, 35, 36, 37], including such items as “As I age, I repeat more often to someone what I have just told them than previously” and “I have more difficulty reading newspapers than I did several years ago.” The overall reliability of this scale was 0.902.

Attitude toward Smartphones.

The attitude toward smartphones items were measured in terms of perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use of smartphones, again using a five-point Likert Scale. Items were adopted from the seminal work on the TAM [10], proposing such statements as “I find the smartphone easy to use” or “I find the smartphone useful in my life.” The reliability of this scale was 0.979.

Using Smartphones as Compensation.

The use of smartphones as selective optimizations with compensation items were mainly generated based on the SOC scale [15], integrating items from the Instrumental Activities of Daily Living form that measures an elderly person’s daily activities [29]. The items in this section generally focused on smartphones’ roles in the older adults’ responses to the loss of certain abilities involved in completing daily tasks, such as “I cannot get out to meet my friends as much as I did before, so I use my smartphone to keep in contact with them.” This scale’s reliability was 0.866.

6 Results

Applying the ordinary least squares (OLS) method, we detected significant associations among all four of the measures defined in Sect. 5, i.e., attitude toward aging, perceived aging deficits, attitude toward smartphones, and using smartphones as compensation. In addition, statistical analysis using PROCESS with 1,000 bootstraps and a 95 % confidence interval suggested conditional indirect effects among these variables [21], indicating more complicated relations between aging status and smartphone adoption among older adults.

Hypotheses 1a and 1b were supported by the data. More specifically, older adults reported significantly more positive attitudes toward using smartphones as compensation when they viewed aging positively (β = .345, p < .001) and when they perceived themselves as having aging-related deficits (β = .077, p < .01). This result indicated that older adults who have positive attitudes toward new technologies are those viewing life from the “glass half full” perspective rather than from the “glass half empty” perspective. Likewise, those who acknowledged their aging-related deficits tended to prefer to compensate for them with smartphones (Tables 1 and 2).
Table 1.

Stepwise regressions of effects on attitude towards the smartphone


Model 1

Model 2



Std. Error


Std. Error


























Marital status















Aging attitude




Perceived deficits









*p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001

Table 2.

Stepwise Regressions of Effects on Use of Smartphone


Model 1

Model 2



Std. Error


Std. Error


























Marital status















Aging attitude




Perceived deficits







*p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001

Hypothesis 2 was also supported by the data, indicating a meditating effect among attitudes toward aging and smartphones versus perceived aging deficits. The standard regression coefficient between attitudes toward aging and perceived aging deficits was significant (b = − 1.33, SE = .29, p < .001), as was the coefficient between perceived aging deficits and attitudes toward smartphones (b = .07, SE = .02, p < .01). Therefore, the standardized indirect effect was the product (−1.33)(.07) = − .093. The direct effect attitudes toward aging had on attitudes toward smartphones was significant (b = .35, SE = .06, p < .001). The results of normal theory tests indicated that the overall meditational effect was significant (Z = − 2.54, p < 0.05) (Figs. 1 and 2).
Fig. 1.

Conditional indirect effects on attitude towards the smartphone

Fig. 2.

Conditional indirect effects on use of the smartphone to compensate for deficits

Hypotheses 3a and 3b were also supported. The statistical results indicated that older adults who believe they had certain aging-related deficits (β = .28, p < .05) and who had positive attitudes in response to the aging process (β = .19, p < .001) were more likely to adopt smartphones to compensate for their deficits. The conditional indirect effect, again, was found to be significant. The standard regression coefficient between attitudes toward aging and perceived aging deficits was significant (b = − 1.33, SE = .29, p < .001), as was the coefficient between perceived deficits and using smartphones as compensation (b = .27, SE = .06, p < .001). Consequently, the standardized indirect effect was the product (−1.33)(.27) = − .354. The direct effect attitudes toward aging had on attitudes toward smartphones was significant (b = .49, SE = .17, p < .01). As with Hypothesis 2, the results of normal theory tests indicated that the overall meditational effect was significant (Z = − 3.22, p < .01).

7 Discussion

How do older adults manage their lives in the digital era? Too many studies have emphasized the barriers they face in adopting new technologies; yet, little is known regarding the role new technologies have in successful aging. Drawing upon the results of an online survey of older adults, in this study, we set out to reveal the effects of physical and psychological aging on the adoption of smartphones in terms of compensating for aging deficits. All of the hypotheses were supported by the data, with three major themes emerging from our analysis, i.e., the attitudes of older adults toward aging impact their (1) self-perceptions of aging-related deficits, (2) attitudes toward smartphones, and (3) use of smartphones to compensate for deficits.

First, older adults exhibited different attitudes toward aging, leading their perceptions of aging deficits to vary. Those who reported feeling better about themselves now as opposed to when they were younger tended to see themselves as having few deficiencies in terms of vision, hearing, memory, and mobility as a result of aging. Conversely, older adults focused on the nostalgia of their youth tended to report more deficits caused by aging. Positive attitudes and wisdom can protect older people from declining life situations and health [2].

The attitudes the older adults had toward aging resulted in different viewpoints regarding smartphones. By relating these attitudes to their perceived deficits, our study demonstrated that older people who believe aging is not a depressing issue tended to consider smartphones to be useful and enjoyable. In other words, positive attitudes toward aging gave rise to more confidence in handling changes in their daily lives [11], thus reducing their psychological resistance to adopting smartphones to compensate for deficits (except that more confidence also led to fewer perceived deficits to compensate for).

Through the lens of SOC, our current study further demonstrated that older adults were actually able to make deliberate choices to cope with their life issues, especially regarding the question of whether to adopt and use smartphones. For those with positive attitudes toward growing old, using smartphones to compensate for deficits was simply an alternative means of solving problems. Yet, seniors who resisted aging and getting old tended to avoid using new technologies (such as smartphones) to facilitate their activities even though they reported experiencing certain physiological deficits. Shedding light on successful aging through SOC, our findings suggest that whether or not aging can be successful largely depends on how older adults treat aging.

Similar to other studies, our present research has several limitations that call for scholarly attention in future research. First, it focused only on cross-sectional survey reports rather than longitudinal data in measuring the causations among variables; further studies should attempt to address this issue. Second, since the survey was distributed via the Internet, it was difficult to reach respondents who might live much more or entirely technology-free lives; in future research, other methodologies, including face-to-face interviews or postal mail, should be used to collect data.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yao Sun
    • 1
    Email author
  • Margaret L. McLaughlin
    • 1
  • Michael J. Cody
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Southern CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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