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Building an Internet Environment for Elderly Users

Jun MURAI <>
Keio University


The number of elderly people is increasing rapidly in Japan. A large part of their communication is based on a few conventional types of media such as telephones and letters. The use of the Internet and computers, however, can enable communication that was difficult to conduct with previous communication tools. This new method of communication is thought to benefit the daily communication of the elderly.

In this paper, we have focused on the institution for the elderly and designed a computer environment within the institution. An experiment was conducted on the use of this environment by the actual implementation of a computer network within an institution. As a result of the experiment, we were able to observe the elderly's change of view toward computers. This communication environment placed in the institution proved to be effective: a number of elderly learned to operate the computer as well as obtain some skills. Many have also lost their fear of and resistance toward the computer.



In Japan, the number of persons in the age group 65 and over is expected to increase by 80% during the next 20 years. Since many elderly people live by themselves and have some difficulty in going out and because their communication methods are usually restricted to a few existing media, it would be very convenient if they can communicate using the Internet.

Taking into account the advantages of the Internet, there have been many attempts to encourage the elderly to use computers and the Internet here in Japan. Most of those attempts are based on the idea of giving the elderly who are enthusiastic enough to learn about computers and set up their own machine at home low-cost or free opportunities to learn skills to operate computers. Therefore it could be said that the elderly who have fear of and resistance to the computer and cannot afford their own computer are not targets for those attempts. Consequently, the number of elderly users of the Internet makes up only a tiny portion of the total number of users. Obviously chances and opportunities to encourage elderly people who feel uncomfortable with computers are not sufficient.

There are actually many elderly who have fear of and resistance to computers and the Internet and many of them believe they never need them. The purpose of this research is to find out through actual experiment which type of Internet environment is the most appropriate for elderly people who gather in one place. In this experiment, a computer environment which can make the elderly who fear and resist computers become interested in them is especially investigated.

Building an Internet environment in an institution for the elderly

This chapter explains how a computer environment for elderly people was designed and built. In designing the environment, both user and managing sides should be taken into account, since there are many features on both sides to be considered.

Prior experiment

Before designing an Internet environment for the elderly was begun, an experiment was carried out to detect problems caused by using the Internet, which were then analyzed and indicated. Details of experiments are as follows.

Target3 elderly, (66-year-old lady who lives alone, 94-year-old lady who lives in an old people's house, 77-year-old man who lives with his wife)
Terms for experimentabout one year for each person
Environmentconnecting to the Internet by Point To Point Protocol with phone line using a modem.

Each of them was provided with the connection to the Internet through the phone line using a modem from where they live. Though they had been interested in the Internet, they had never used it before. Some students assisted their first use of computers by visiting their home regularly. The participants communicated with many people through the Internet using e-mail and the WWW.


After three elderly people used computers and the Internet for a certain period, the following observations were made:

First of all, many elderly needed close assistance all the time when they used computers because they had many questions about using it. However, such assistance usually cannot be provided to the elderly while they are in their own home, which could be a kind of barrier. Next, there were many cases of the elderly having minor handicaps such as visual impairment and trembling hands. Therefore, several kinds of input and output devices should be offered so that they can choose appropriate devices according to their difficulties and taste.

In this paper, we have focused on the institution for the elderly in the point that elderly people gather in that place and there is always some assistance for them. Therefore it would be effective if an environment with public computers is created inside an institution for the elderly, including elderly who have fear of and resistance towards computers, with usual assistance and various kinds of input and output devices.

Design of the environment inside the institution

One of the main reasons for implementation of the computer environment is to give some opportunities to use the Internet to the elderly who fear and resist computers and the Internet. Through using the computer environment built in this research, the elderly who go to the institution can have a chance to know about the Internet and even can use it. The main purposes of building a computer environment are as follows:

  1. To provide the environment to learn and acquire the skill of using the Internet; and
  2. To provide the environment to communicate through the Internet.

Details of the environment in this research are explained below.

Connecting to the Internet

Since building a computer environment in an institution for the elderly is unprecedented, the amount of traffic could not be anticipated. In this research, connecting to the Internet is carried out by using PPP (point to point protocol) and a phone line with an ISDN router which has the function of NAT (Network Address Translation).


Most of the Japanese elderly people have never used keyboards or mouses. Some of them have constantly trembling hands. Furthermore, many of them are handicapped; for instance, some suffer from paralysis of one side of the body or visual impairment. Therefore, many input devices are required for them to choose from, according to their difficulties and preferences. In this research, the following devices were adopted.

Pointing devices prepared
Pointing devices:Vendor:
1: MouseApple computer
2: JoystickMacAlly
3: Track BallMacAlly
4: Touch WindowEDMAR

Keyboard devices prepared
Keyboard: Vendor:
1: KeyboardApple Computer
2: Ke:nxAccess International

Besides a mouse, there were other pointing devices for the elderly to choose to use. Moreover, two kinds of keyboards were prepared; one is normal, and the other, Ke:nx, enables the user to assign each key with his or her own choice including size of each key. In this research, mainly 50 Japanese words and some of the consonant and contracted words were assigned with this keyboard. Also, various operations for applications, like selecting Netscape or mail-reader, were assigned.


In most welfare institutions, few staff members are familiar with computers, because computer systems are not commonly introduced in these kinds of institutions in Japan. In this research, a computer network environment was introduced to the institution for the elderly. However, there were not many staff members who could manage the computer network. Therefore, servers like WWW and e-mail were managed by ISPs (Internet service providers).


Macintosh computers were adopted for this computer environment, since many kinds of software for children and the handicapped were prepared by Apple Computer Co.

The environment built in the institution is shown in Fig. 3-1.

Fig. 3-1. The environment in the institution


Using the computer environment which was built in this research, we held experiments to detect the appropriate computer environment and the appropriate way of introducing it to the elderly.

From observation and interviews with the elderly, it was clear that most elderly fear and resist computers and the Internet.

Three kinds of experiments were carried out. Each experiment differed in the location of computers and some other parameters so we could see the changes in the number of people who show interest in computers and the Internet. All the experiments were done by student volunteers led by the author of this paper.

The room called ROOM-A in this paper is where the elderly spend most of their time to sit and relax and socialize with each other. The other room is called ROOM-B. They rarely use this room. Each elderly person comes to this institution only during the daytime to receive meals and bath service and participate in enjoyable activities. Their average age is about 66 years old.

Stage A (first experiment)


Location of computersROOM-B
Period of the experiment 20 days in total (from July and August 1997)
Number of the elderlyabout 15
Number of computers2

In this stage, the elderly were told of the existence of an Internet-accessible computer network in the institution. They were asked if they wanted to use it. However, in order to use the computers it was necessary to move from ROOM-A, where other elderly were staying, to ROOM-B.


The number of elderly who used the computer4
Software they usedgame, e-mail, WWW, exercise software for a mouse and keyboard.
Average time of useabout 50 minutes for each person
The way of introductionNo elderly were forced

Only those who knew what could be done using computers and what kinds of information could be retrieved from the Internet used the computers as they wanted. Other elderly people who had not known about computers or the Internet did not want to use them at this stage of experiment. And they did not show any interest in them. Since those who used computers had to move to ROOM-B, they could not keep track of what the other members were doing in ROOM-A, and vice versa.

Stage B (Second Experiment)


Location of computersROOM-A
Period of the experiment 10 days in September 1997
Number of the elderlyabout 30
The way of introductionall the elderly in the institution should use it
Number of computers2

In this stage, a computer network was introduced in ROOM-A and all the elderly including those who had not been interested in the computer were forced to participate in a lecture about computers and the Internet, given by student volunteers. The lecture was mostly about the effectiveness of the Internet by using WWW and e-mail.


The number of the elderly who used the computer
Software they used
game, e-mail, WWW
Average time of use
about 30 minutes for each elderly person
The way of introduction
All the elderly were forced to use it.

Because all the elderly had to participate in the lecture about the computer and the Internet, some of them who previously had not been interested in the computer and the Internet had a first chance to know what they could do with it and what kind of information they could get from the Internet. Some of them started using it and some found that it was much easier than they had thought. However, there were those who had not been interested in the Internet and the computer and did not really want to attend a lecture on the Internet and the computer; they were in a bad mood all throughout the day.

During this stage, the elderly were interviewed about their feelings about computers and the Internet. While some of them had positive expectations towards computers and the Internet, others felt disgust.

  • Expectations
    • To stock information using computers
    • To access the Internet to do shopping and searching through WWW
    • To play a game
    • To communicate with other people using e-mail though the Internet
  • Disgust
    • They do not need computers and the Internet
    • Computers seem to be very difficult to use
    • They hate machinery, including computers

Stage C (Third Experiment)


Location of computers
Period of the experiment
8 days in December 1997
Number of the elderly
about 15
The way of introduction
No one was forced to use computers.
Number of computers

In this stage, computers were introduced in ROOM-A where the elderly spend time for recreation and socialization. Computers were placed at the end of room as some of the information equipment. No one was told to use them; the computers just existed in the room. If some of them wanted to use it, they could use it with an assistant who taught how to use them.


The number of the elderly who used the environment
Software they used
game, e-mail, WWW
Average time of use
about 30 minutes to an hour for each person

At the beginning of this stage, some elderly people who had been interested in computers used the environment. At this time, the rest of the elderly who had never showed any interest in computers heard the sound coming from the computers and some talked with the ones who were interested in computers and the Internet. Some gradually started looking at computer displays over the shoulders of the users. In this stage, there were some cases of elderly people who had never shown interest before and feared and resisted computers starting to use and learn about them.


Location of computers

In this experiment, the way of introducing the computer network through public computers in the public area could be examined. Stage C seems the best way for the elderly since the elderly who had not been interested in computers could learn about the effectiveness of the computers and the Internet by peeping over shoulders without being forced to use the computers. Actually, some who had no prior interest started using the environment. Since not only the elderly who had been interested in the computers at the beginning, but also those who had not been interested in the computers were target in this research, the environment of stage C was the most successful one.

The following is a list of 10 elderly people who were observed during the experiment. From this list, it can be seen how the elderly used the computer during this experiment. The levels are labeled with alphabets.

Contents of level

Contents of Level
show no interest towards computersA
show interest towards computersB
peep at displays from behind computer userC
try to use a mouse and exercise using itD
try to use keyboard and exercise using itE
play with computer gameF
browse information on WWWG
write on BBS on WWWH
use e-mailI
start learning to manage and set up computersJ

Each user's steps to use the computer

User 1B->D->E->F->G->H->I->J
User 2B->D->E->F->G->H
User 3B->C->D
User 4B->C->D->E
User 5A->B->D->G
User 6A->B->D->E->G->H->I
User 7A->B->C->D->F
User 8A->B->C
User 9A->B->G
User 10A->B->C

Judging from the lists above, there were many elderly people who had not been interested in the computers before (label A) who started using computers in this experiment. Moreover, the elderly who started from a level labeled A could also reach almost the same level as the elderly who started from a level labeled B reached.


As explained before, there were many kinds of input devices prepared in this environment. The first time the elderly used the computers, they tended to choose "touch window," which enables them to point with their own finger. Since many elderly have trembling hands, however, they could not keep their finger on the same point to operate software and move an object on the computer. Moreover, there was a little space between "touch window" and the computer display, which they found unnatural. Using a mouse and track ball, although they could move devices to a target object, they could not "click" on the same position because of their trembling hands. They needed more time for practicing using pointing devices than practicing using the keyboard.

Since many elderly people were visually impaired, enlargement of the letters displayed was not enough. Other parts of application-interface should be able to be enlarged.

Communication through the Internet

The elderly had different opinions toward computers and the Internet, and most of them had not known about communication through the Internet before this experiment. Many elderly people, however, showed interest in e-mail and some of them started using it and communicated with each other at Stage C. Furthermore, messages on BBS were exchanged among the elderly who went to the same institution. Some elderly people wanted to make friends with the people outside the institution and have communication through the Internet. In the short period of this experiment, however, there was not enough time to do it.


This environment built in the institution was not only for public computer environment, but also for a place where the elderly could learn to use a computer and get a chance to learn about the Internet. There were always some assistants for the elderly when they used the computer, and the environment in this place was very appropriate for the elderly.


The following two points were investigated through the experiment:

  1. Effectiveness of a public computer environment in the institution for the elderly; and
  2. The effective introduction of the computer environment into the institution for the elderly who had not been interested in computers and the Internet.

The public computer environment built in the institution could solve the problems of the elderly needing assistants all the time when they used computers. And it could give a chance to use computers and the Internet to all elderly people in the institution. In this institution where many elderly were gathered, although most of them were not interested in the computers nor the Internet, it was possible to introduce computers to them as public computers.

Moreover, some elderly people did not want to operate computers by themselves, though they had the willingness to get information from the Internet. In this research project, instead of operating the computer themselves, they could get assistants' help to enjoy the information on the Internet. So, even those who became handicapped from their old age and were not able to use any devices of the computers could enjoy the information on the Internet using this computer environment.

After three kinds of experiments, the appropriate computer environment for the elderly was indicated. The most effective way of introduction of the computers is shown as follows.

  • Place computers in a room where the elderly can make themselves at home;
  • Let the elderly choose what they want to do in that room. (It's better not to ask elderly people to use computers);
  • For output devices (not only displays), many kinds of output devices should be prepared;
  • Assistants must stay near the elderly every time they use computers;
  • Do not force the elderly to use the computers and the Internet; and
  • Let the elderly know the effectiveness of the use of computers and the excitement of the Internet.


In this paper, we have shown how the most appropriate computer environment for the elderly was determined through experiments. The public computer environment was built in an institution for the elderly. Since the purpose of the institution was for serving meals, giving baths, and encouraging communication with other elderly people and staff, a computer environment seems unnecessary. Though most elderly felt fear and hesitation towards computers at first, many of them started showing interest in them and using them by the end of this experiment.


Author: Aya Matsui

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