Methodological Considerations in Surveys of Older Adults: Technology Matters

Article excerpt


Surveys of adults over the age of 55 have unique methodological considerations, which typically concern the physiological and psychological factors associated with age-related declines in cognitive functioning and health. Though significant, these comprise a limited view of the way in which older adults differ from the general population. Lower rates of adoption and use of newer information and communication technologies and concerns about privacy in the online environment are other ways which this population is distinct, and should be considered in survey research. As surveys grow more technologically advanced, older adults too may regard data collection practices differently than younger adults, leading to varying rates of participation and response. This paper reviews the literature on the methodological issues inherent in surveying older adults, and analyzes data collected in a large telephone survey to provide further evidence that technology adoption and use should be considered as a cultural practice of this subpopulation, a view which holds additional methodological implications for survey research.

Keywords: Methodological Issues - Surveys - Older Adults - Technology Use


The dynamic demographic structures of many societies emphasize the need for continual revaluation of subpopulations and subcultures in the effort to surface potential systemic biases in survey research. Frequently, these examinations consider differences in subgroups related to regional language and cultural practices, such as those found in immigrant populations or minority ethnic groups. Often overlooked however are considerations related to age and ageing, particularly with older adults over the age of 55. As a sub-segment of society that is not only increasing as a percentage of the total population, but also one that carries significant political and economic weight, this group has markedly different characteristics than the general populace. Generally, the methodological considerations made by survey researchers for this age group are confined to the physiological and psychological factors associated with declines in cognitive functioning and health. While these considerations are significant, they comprise a limited view of the ways in which this group may differ from the general population. In recent years, one important area in which this age group differs markedly in practices is in their adoption and use of newer information and communication technologies, or ICTs (Pew Internet 2009).

Lower participation rates by older adults in newer technologies are often treated as a literacy issue by many survey researchers, and are compensated for by an adoption of survey administration to paper-and-pencil or face-to-face forms. But these approaches diminish the differences as a proficiency matter, and overlook their meaning as cultural practices that have emerged in light of progressively mediated communications. As survey methodologies grow more technologically-dependent these variances become a potential source of bias and an increasingly important component of survey data analysis. The purpose of this paper is to highlight some of the more conventionally-understood methodological issues involved in surveying older adults and, through an examination of survey data on Internet use in a US population, raise additional considerations for researchers in light of increased use of technologically sophisticated data collection mechanisms.

The Older Adult Population

The interest in the older adult population, defined as those individuals over the age of 55, is fuelled by its sheer size and rapid growth as a percentage of the overall populace over the past 30 years. In the United States (US), for example, adults over the age of 55 comprised approximately 20.7% of the population in 1979 (US Census Bureau 1979) but had grown to 23.1% of the population by 2007 (US Census Bureau 2007a). …