I was really prompted to reflect upon this after my conversation with O.S., a recently retired woman I met last Friday at the Gary and Mary West Center. Our discussions at the center last week were focused on the age-friendliness of San Diego--examining what factors either facilitate or hinder health and well-being. The World Health Organization has laid out a set of eight determinants in assessing age-friendliness in urban life including: outdoor spaces and buildings, housing, civic participation and employment, community and health services, transportation, respect and social inclusion, social participation, and communication/information. In hearing her critiques of these factors, I found not necessarily the characteristics of San Diego, but rather national changes in technological culture to be a surprising underlying connection in concerns she had with the surrounding environment.
O.S. expressed concern that there is an increasing lack of respect for the elderly. She highlighted this through repeated encounters of people not giving up their seats on the bus. She described a bus I have seen daily--a collection of millennials engrossed in their phones--all in the same physical space, but each in their own world. Among younger generations, phones and laptops often seem as though they have become extensions of our bodies. While information and answers are at our fingertips and connections can be maintained with people across the globe, basic human acknowledgement and connection with the people sitting or standing next to us I worry is being lost. A device that is to give freedom, in my opinion has become a new sort of leash. Because messages can be sent instantaneously, responses are also expected instantaneously. While this is helpful at times, it also means one is never disconnected from work or other obligations.
This difference in communication in the digital age is also reflected in changes O.S. pointed out feeling in terms of social inclusion and participation. As a woman of color growing up during the civil rights movements of the 1960s, she described differences she finds between today’s forms of social activism compared to those of her era. While I would argue that there is much going on, like the black lives matter movement for instance, I can see that large social movements don’t often take on the same public display. O.S. feels that activism today has lost the same degree of group solidarity. To a large degree, I can understand why she feels this way. Group platforms and campaigns today are largely through social media--disconnecting those who do not have access to or know how to use such devices or platforms. Launching off a similar thread as Sandra, I feel elders who participated in activism have much that can be shared with younger generations. This new use of social media and technology as the main platform however cuts many of these elders out of the conversation. There has been much debate actually amongst sociologists as to whether movements and social “inclusion” through social media platforms are as effective. While they reach a broader span, there is less commitment and motivation required. In an recent article in the New Yorker, Gladwell reflect on this issue of activism through social media arguing that people are only motivated to do things on social media when they don’t want to make real sacrifices.
When discussing the other eight factors with O.S., I realized the extent to which there is an expectation that everyone has access to and understand how to use the internet. For example when discussing access to health services, O.S. expressed her frustration in the fact that she is often expected to schedule appointments online. Nearly all job applications are also online, as well as housing applications. Public transportation is another thing that often expects the use phone apps for example to understand how to get places, particularly when many transfers are involved.
While many would argue technological advancement is inevitable and we must keep up or fall behind, it is important that there are programs available. The Gary and Mary West Center does provide a computer lab and has high school students come in to help the elders learn how to use the internet. However, teaching doesn’t do much when many of these elders can’t afford to get phones or computers or change their desire to join this new wave that is latched on these devices (can’t blame them). It is part of the responsibility of city planning I believe to ensure that programs and services are made clear in physical public displays and not merely on internet devices. As discussed earlier, it is also extremely important that there are available spaces for intergenerational communication. Round table discussions have actually been started by a fellow student in the public health department. These roundtables are generating some interesting conversations and are hopefully helping to maintain those intergenerational ties that I worry are being lost with advancing technology.