By: Jacqueline Pachis, M.A., BCBA

Have you ever heard the phrase, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” when referring to an adult learning a new skill or engaging in a new behavior? Sometimes you might hear the phrase from adults themselves, particularly when they are in their 60s or above. Not only is this phrase ageist, but it makes assumptions about older adults that are not true. We acquire new skills throughout our lifetime, and this is no different as we get older. Any person can learn a new “trick” or skill, so long as the proper tools for teaching are available. When we think of behavioral gerontology, we think of applying the principles of behavior analysis to quality of life later in life. This includes facilitation of skills acquisition and providing new opportunities for connection.

Most adults 60 and older use technology just like their younger counterparts. However, members of the silent generation — or the oldest-old, now octo and nonagenarians —  might shy away from using the internet and technology such as smartphones, computers, and iPads. These technologies are pervasive in all areas and have much to offer; misconceptions about these technologies being too difficult to learn or having no real use or purpose for older adults might pose barriers. When my grandparents were in their late 70s, they realized they could connect with family and friends if they had access to Facetime. They are first-generation immigrants to North America and missed the hubbub of social excitement and the inclusion of older adults that is more typical of other cultures. They saw the iPad as an opportunity to stay connected with others and overcome boredom. I was only a 20-min drive away, and after they had purchased an iPad, they asked me to help them use it, to video chat with family and friends, use Facebook, read the news, watch videos, etc. At that time, I was completing my master’s in applied behavior analysis and working as a behavior therapist for children with neurodevelopmental disorders.

As I used principles of behavior analysis, such as chaining, modeling, prompting, and reinforcement every day to teach important and meaningful skills, I quickly realized that these same principles and procedures could be applied to teach skills to anyone, including how to teach my grandparents to use the iPad. While this wasn’t all that ground-breaking of a realization, there was actually little research available on how these principles can be applied to optimize learning and skills acquisition for older adult learners.

This gave me an idea for my master’s thesis research project: I planned to evaluate different prompting procedures for their effectiveness in teaching older adults to use unfamiliar technology. With the help of my grandparents as inspiration (and as pilot participants), I set out to conduct a small-N study. I volunteered at a local assisted living facility and met with three interested residents, Doris (91 years old), Janice (75 years old), and Henry (93 years old), and taught them how to send an email, make video calls, and use apps like Youtube.

I used chaining to break down each task into its component steps and created a task analysis. I then used total-tasking chaining and prompting to teach each step of the behavior chain. I compared two commonly-used prompting procedures — written instructions with corresponding pictures and video modeling — to see which procedure would help participants learn best.

Both prompting procedures were found to be effective in teaching iPad skills. While all three participants were more accustomed to following written instructions, two soon found that they preferred to learn by video model. The third felt the video moved too quickly, whereas the text allowed for self-paced instructions. Furthermore, all three participants embraced the technology. Those who didn’t already own iPads purchased new ones after the study was completed and said they would continue using their favorite new apps.

I found the social implications of the study most meaningful. Residents looked forward to our learning sessions, suggesting they provided social stimulation and reinforcement. Doris waited by the door for me to arrive at the facility for our sessions together. After Janice left our sessions, I observed her demonstrating her newly acquired skills to her friends and other residents. Henry and I talked about the Group of Seven and Elvis Presley, and we found videos to watch on YouTube together. 

What started out as a research project turned out to be a fun activity that all of us looked forward to each week. This experience kick-started my interest in behavioral gerontology and allowed me to make a novel contribution to applied behavior analysis. Overall, this was a truly enjoyable experience for everyone involved, and I, too, learned some new tricks along the way.

Note: participant names have been changed to protect their privacy

Here is the link to the published article in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis to read more:

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