Seniors Learning Technology

Old Dogs, New Tricks: Why Seniors Have Trouble With Technology
dad-learning-tablet

You've tried to show your grandmother how to use Facebook three times and she can never remember how to log in. Your father loves Sinatra, but when you send him links to historic clips, he says he can't open them. You desperately need your mother to learn to text so she won't interrupt your workday with calls. Why is it so difficult to teach older adults how to use the Internet, cell phones, and other technology? And given the uses and benefits that most of us value so highly, why do some seniors seem unmotivated to learn? Researchers, it turns out, have been studying this very issue and have come up with some interesting answers -- and solutions. Read on and see if any of the situations below sound familiar, and what to do if your loved one fits one (or more) of these profiles.

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The Slow Starter

The number of seniors using the Internet has grown much more slowly year by year than the rate of Internet use by adults in general. In 2012, the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project was finally able to announce that more than half (53 percent) of American adults over age 65 are online and using e-mail. When asked their reasons for not going online, most said they either "didn't need it," didn't see the benefits of it, or didn't know how to access it. Interestingly, though, once older adults get online, they tend to be very active; Pew's data show that most Web users over 65 go online on a daily basis, and more than half use social media as well as e-mail and search engines. What does this suggest? That seniors only discover the benefits of being online once they are. In other words, showing your grandmother the baby pictures your sister just posted on Facebook is going to be a much more powerful motivator than anything you can say.

How to Help
The best way to help a slow starter is with the simplest possible technology and step-by-step demonstrations. So next time you visit, sit down with Dad or Grandma and walk them slowly through the basic steps, starting wherever they are. If your loved one is resisting the introduction of technology at home, get her started at the library, or bring your own laptop or tablet over to show her what she's missing. Many seniors also benefit from the support of a group course, like those offered at New York's Senior Planet, a new senior technology learning center that offers free courses in Internet use, iPad apps, digital photography, and more. Many adult day programs and community centers offer such courses, too. Keep in mind any physical limitations -- if your loved one has arthritis that interferes with typing, for example, a tablet or an oversized keyboard might be the solution. If eyesight is an issue, there are phones designed with larger interfaces, and you can increase type size on devices and computers.

The Nervous Nellie

"Oh, I don't know, I don't think I'll be able to learn to use it," your elderly parent says when you offer to buy her a smartphone. Many older adults respond to the constant demands of changing times by becoming easily intimidated and even fearful. Often their nervousness is accompanied by self-doubt and a sort of fatalism: "I think it's a little late in life for me to learn all that." So how do you get past this brick wall of resistance? According to a 2008 government report, "Barriers and Drivers of Health Information Technology Use for the Elderly, Chronically Ill, and Underserved," anxiety and intimidation were main factors preventing seniors from trying out new technology.

How to Help
Like most of us, older adults learn best with one-on-one, hands-on show-and-tell. And the more nervous and intimidated your loved one is about technology, the more important it is to transmit information in small bites. Show your loved one how to do one thing at a time, and let her practice doing it on her own multiple times before moving on to another challenge. Also, don't throw a bunch of new tools at her at once; the government survey found that seniors learn best when technology is delivered using equipment they're already familiar with. Of course this doesn't help if your parent or loved one uses no technology at all, but it suggests that if your loved one already has experience with one type of technology, you might want to increase her skills in that area before trying a new device.

The Cranky Curmudgeon

We all know at least one person who falls into this camp -- or we might even describe ourselves this way, at least under some circumstances. The operative issue here as it relates to technology is temper; the curmudgeon has a low frustration threshold, is easily annoyed, and lacks the patience to work through problems when they arise. (Which they will do -- adapting to new technology is never problem free.)

How to Help
To prevent frustration, set low expectations from the start, explaining that pretty much everyone gets stuck early on and it's no big deal. To combat crankiness, offer plenty of positive reinforcement after each task. If your loved one gets impatient with you, you can speed up the pace of your instruction, but stop frequently and have her practice each skill. (Otherwise you'll trigger frustration when she can't remember.) If she gets impatient with herself, you can try humor to defuse the situation, offer reassurance, take a break, or simply overlook the grumpiness and keep going.

The Budget-Conscious User

Many seniors live on tight budgets and have to pay close attention to expenses. Owning a computer or setting up cable access may feel like an expense they can't afford. That said, the government's study on barriers to Internet use found that many seniors overestimate the cost of technology by a wide margin, based on outdated information or a misunderstanding of what type of equipment they need.

How to Help
Take your loved one to a store with a good technology department and introduce him to the variety of options available. Explain that tablets, netbooks, and laptops are available at much lower cost than the big desktop computers he's more familiar with. If your loved one can't afford or balks at monthly payments for Internet access or a data plan, you can introduce her to the computers at the public library or see if he's interested in a Wi-Fi-only tablet that he can use in cafes and other public places. Studies show that once older adults discover the ways in which the Internet and social media enhance their lives, they become more open to paying for those services.

The Stay-at-Homer

"I'm always here, so why would I need a cell phone?" If you've ever heard this one, you know you're in for a chicken-and-egg discussion. Many seniors are so used to relying on a home phone and voice mail that they don't realize it's exerting a habit-forming pull. ("I need to stay home in case Mary calls.") But isolation can become a habit, and not a good one. Recently, experts in aging have begun to focus on what some are calling an "epidemic of loneliness" among older adults. More seniors today live alone than at any time before, and many do not have strong social networks for support. Studies have shown that for many older adults, isolation gradually breeds fear, social anxiety, and increases the likelihood of depression and health problems.

How to Help: According to a U.K. study by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Internet usage can be key to helping seniors stay connected and avoid loneliness. (Read 6 Tips to Entice Your Parent to Adapt to the Web.) The Web also comes in handy for tasks that may be difficult for older adults who don't get out much. Learning to do online banking, for example, could save her many a trip downtown. And when it comes to accessing government benefits, older adults may have no choice but to go online. In 2011, the U.S. Social Security Administration stopped mailing Social Security benefit statements, making them available online only. Even more drastic, in March 2013 the agency stopped mailing paper-based benefit checks, requiring direct deposit instead. Get your loved one up to speed on e-mail, social media, or online support groups, and you've introduced her to a virtual community that's available even when she's housebound.


over 2 years ago, said...

Since I have been eligible for AARP for a while now (I'm 55, almost 56), I have been using computers at works since 1992. I'm amazed at how the technology has changed during my short lifetime, so imagining my Father (92.5 now) and computers is quite interesting. He was in on the first large computers that came out at Chevron in the '40s. Had no problem with them. When the m micro computer came out, I bought him a Commodore 64, which he dearly loved, and went through 3 of them. Programmed things, wrote letters, Mom used it as well (if she were alive, she'd be 92.5 just like Dad). When we bought them their first IBM platform, Mom transited quite well, Dad, NOPE. Now all he uses his laptop for is clicking the link that gives him the recap of his stocks through Google stocks now. He kept using the C64 even when it was relegated to the basement. He likes having one of my old iPhones (which I use as an iPod) to use his wireless internet to look at his stocks during the day. I think he understands technology, he just can't comprehend how even and iPhone has more computing power than the big computers that he programmed with Fortran on in the '40s and '50s. Mom didn't need to understand how it worked, she just did what she needed (letters, email, recipes, pictures). Best wishes to all!


over 2 years ago, said...

Teach Mom to text so she won't interrupt your workday? I'd LOVE my Mom to call but that won't happen as she pass almost a year ago. To keep the younger ones connected with the "here and now" at family functions, we've had them turn their cell phones OFF and place them in a basket by the door to be retrieved as they leave. It's worked, too, despite some grumbling at first. Loved some of the comments -- like WANG bringing back old memories, how about Lanier (a dedicated word processor)? Many times Mom would tell me her TV wasn't working and she didn't press anything. Her shaky hands just lightly touched a button and she wasn't aware of it; no problem and I'd fix it in a jiffy. Still love and miss you bunches, Mom.


over 2 years ago, said...

My last comment was to Omyachinback, whose name disappeared from the first line of my comment. Yet ANOTHER reason to hate technology!


over 2 years ago, said...

I tired to send you a hug, too, , but I wasn't able to do that, either - maybe. I see that you have a hug today, so maybe it was the one I tried to send yesterday. With technology, who knows? (Can we see one reason that seniors become so upset with technology? In an article on this very issue, the site's "hug/prayer" function doesn't work! Mercy!) I loved your post, sharing your wisdom and humor. (Sorry about the processor having been uninstalled,though.) As I was reading everything you wrote, I reminisced about the wonderful family holiday, Sunday, and special occasions' dinners my family had when I was growing up. We had fabulous opportunities to really get to know each other, because there were never any interruptions from cellphones and no distractions from video games, etc. I miss those more than ever since my parents and grandparents passed on. I'm EXTREMELY grateful that my life was not imposed upon by such technology. I think that mine was the last generation to truly honor the time and presence of the people in our physical company. Today, people (especially the younger ones) don't seem to value such things. Because of that, a great deal has been lost, even though technology has the potential to bring us closer. By the time my parents needed me to care for them until their deaths, I had come to know them as individual human beings, as the people they had been before I was ever born. That factor made it very easy for me to be their friend as well as their daughter and to feel the complete joy of caring for them for 14 years. We can't really appreciate, cherish, or readily see the treasure in what or whom we don't really know, and that includes our own family members. We can't get to thoroughly know anyone if we are constantly distracted by technology. Our time should be given, undivided, maybe even with the thought that we might not see that person again, treasuring every moment we're together. After all, no one knows when time will be no more, and all our chances to ask questions and learn will be gone. Instead, people are shoved aside for any phone calls and new technological distractions that come down the pike, even during dinner. The very worst show of disrespect was when someone's cellphone went off at a funeral service - and he took the call! NOTHING seems sacred any more, while technology has come to rule the lives of so many in their thoughtlessness and lack of decorum. Maybe that's one reason so many seniors are shoved into nursing homes, to live out the last years of their lives with strangers, instead of their families. Most are quickly forgotten, except perhaps for the perfunctory and very rare letters, or phone calls. If they're lucky, they might get a card or two. Usually, Christmas doesn't even bring family in for a visit or gifts or even a phone call. I saw that all too often, myself, when my mother had to go into a rehab facility, following a serious surgery. It's easy to treat people like that when we don't really value them. Modern technology has indeed separated us from one another and left us much more lonely than previous generations were. For me, the cost is much too high. I wonder when we might learn that...


over 2 years ago, said...

I started with computers when I was 64. Being a photographer, I knew that going digital was what I had to do but I dreaded having to learn a new system. I used to watch my daughter perform her "magic" on her computer. Being a graphic designer, she was very adept with Photoshop and other software of her profession. I followed her suggestion and took a class called "Introduction to Microcomputers" It took me a while but after a few years I felt more and more comfortable with my computer. Even later I began to wonder while why it took me so long to go digital in my photography. I could do with my computer as much or more than I could do in the darkroom. I also loved to be able to delete what I didn't like. Yes, computers and the other hardware connected with them, along with software can add up to a lot of expense if you do serious work. It seems as if as soon as you buy one particular model, the manufacturers have another to replace it and soon to keep up with the new hardware, you have to update with new software. You really have to know what you need and what you want to accomplish.


over 2 years ago, said...

Printing out reminder "how to" instructions, in over-sized, easy-to read type at least 14pt. in size, may also help. A loved one may get excited about a new technology when a teacher is around. But once the teacher is away, the learnings may not have transferred from short-term to long-term memory yet. And the loved one may be too embarrassed to ask for instructions to be repeated. Proactively head off the embarrassment and print up simple-to follow instructions following a teaching session, and see if that helps.


over 2 years ago, said...

Janice, I totally agree with you. I miss the Christmases where no one would have dared pull out a cellphone, and definitely not answer one if it rang because the interruption was considered rude. Now it looks like a room full of tele-marketers with all the grandchildren chatting with their friends, instead of Grandma. (Yoohoo, you little brats, you want your presents?)Same thing at doctor's offices and even churches. We are losing the ability to connect face to face. While I'm happy for ERP, I don't know anyone with that kind of budget. My mom's depression-era friends tend to be a lot more frugal. You're right on that point, it is a major expense, and every time you upgrade, you also have to upgrade all the software, or buy more$$$. The cost of screwing up, and the frustration, adds up, too. The beloved aunts I referenced in a previous msg trash a computer about once every three months. The local repair guys love them. My husband got his first computer at age 68, and I still get screams for help almost daily because he has messed up something. Once he actually uninstalled the processor! "Is that important?" Nah, it just runs the computer, no big deal. $$$ For rural living, it makes a very big difference as to what I can learn and research, but I've had computers since the first WANG in 1978, and have had an internet business since 1995 (talk about primitive!) I can troubleshoot, and understand the mindset behind the teenyboppers who design things nowadays (glitz over functionality). But a computer isn't a life necessity, or the only way of connecting, and if someone doesn't want to be bothered, leave them alone. And don't get me going about cellphones!! Here's a hug for you, Janice P, this website keeps giving me a blank page when I try to send one the other way. Hmm.


over 2 years ago, said...

Janice, I totally agree with you. I miss the Christmases where no one would have dared pull out a cellphone, and definitely not answer one if it rang because the interruption was considered rude. Now it looks like a room full of tele-marketers with all the grandchildren chatting with their friends, instead of Grandma. (Yoohoo, you little brats, you want your presents?) Same thing at doctor's offices and even churches. We are losing the ability to connect face to face. While I'm happy for ERP, I don't know anyone with that kind of budget. My mom's depression-era friends tend to be a lot more frugal. You're right on that point, it is a major expense, and every time you upgrade, you also have to upgrade all the software, or buy more$$$. The cost of screwing up, and the frustration, adds up, too. The beloved aunts I referenced in a previous msg trash a computer about once every three months. The local repair guys love them. My husband got his first computer at age 68, and I get screams for help almost daily because he has messed up something. Once he actually uninstalled the processor! "Is that important?" Nah, it just runs the computer, no big deal. $$$ For rural living, it makes a very big difference as to what I can learn and research, but I've had computers since the first WANG in 1978, and have had an internet business since 1995 (talk about primitive!) I can troubleshoot, and understand the mindset behind the teenyboppers who design things nowadays (glitz over functionality). But for someone new to the tech, a computer isn't a life necessity, or the only way of connecting. And don't get me going about cellphones!! Hugs for you, Janice P, guess what, I can't get this website to send one to you, ha ha, the screen keeps going blank :-)


over 2 years ago, said...

One additional comment about other technology... I have a cellphone, which I use ONLY for emergencies and to take with me when I go hiking. Otherwise, it is never turned on. I hate what has happened to our society with the advent of the many types of technology, which distracts us from the people in our company. Even though people still get together, they are so busy on their cellphones and with other electronic toys, that they seem to have forgotten manners and how to carry on a conversation in person. Technology ought to make life easier and help us with our tasks. Instead, it has put an artificial wall between people, who end up feeling alone and ignored, even when they are in the company of others. I wish people would use their technology ONLY for emergencies. We are not the heads of governments, who HAVE to be reached for national emergencies. We need to honor our friendships and others in our company, and not take non-emergency calls when we're with others. We grow more and more isolated and distant from one others every time we interrupt a friend to take a call.


over 2 years ago, said...

I know exactly why I - and other seniors - have trouble learning to use the computer and other electronic technology. The equipment is very expensive, usually over $1,000. If we make a mistake, we know we can't simply get out an eraser and correct what we've done. Sometimes, our mistake will cause our computer to crash - and WE have to pay to have it repaired or buy another one. Younger people learn how to use computers and other such equipment in schools and on taxpayer- supported equipment. If they crash a computer, they don't have to pay a dime. The taxpayer does. So, they can happily move along, hitting this key or that one, without any worry that a mistake will cost them a lot of money. Sometimes, a computer won't crash, but hitting the wrong key will cause the screen setup to change or disappear altogether. That renders the computer unusable until someone else can restore it for us. Again, that costs us big money, along with a great deal of frustration. If I didn't have to worry about doing something that might cost me hundreds of dollars or more, I might be more adventurous on the computer, and I think I could have learned to use it much easier. But, those of us who didn't learn this talent in school, have to pay big sums for our mistakes (which are not easy to pay on a fixed income), so we have to be much more careful, sometimes to the point of barely learning to use the functions available. Better safe than sorry - and extremely costly.


over 2 years ago, said...

Well, you pretty well covered everyone in my family. I'm not sure if you intended this article for functioning seniors like me :-), or the ones I take care of who are not so functional anymore. I do disagree about HAVING to have a cell phone unless the person is running around all over town and may need one for an emergency. It's one more bill, and can climb like the cable bill if you start getting bigger plans and contracts, or if Auntie decides to call France and order 400 bonbons. Caregivers know too well how important it is to monitor the phone. That goes for computers, too. We could all tell horror stories about the damage done by early-onset folks to bank accounts and personal lives. Great advice overall, though, for the hold-outs. Both my rural-living aunts swore they'd never use a computer, but a cousin showed them how to navigate to the hobbies they were interested in, and now at 72 and 78, they're internet junkies. My 80 year old uncle spends six hours a day on Facebook. The biggest drawback to learning how to use a computer is the current problem that everyone complains about: Windows 8. For a generation accustomed to simplicity, navigating through pages of cutesy tiles and "charms" (good grief, it had to be a twenty year old that came up with that) just to get anywhere is incredibly annoying. I have friends clinging to worn out laptops because they still have Windows 7. The so-called perks that young developers think are so cool and cute are basically time-wasters . The blogs are full of people of all ages frustrated with 8 when they upgraded to a new computer. Trying to teach 8 to anyone is a nightmare. Mostly I teach the work-arounds so people can actually use their new computer, and ignore the charmless charms. Just an opinion.


over 2 years ago, said...

This is not me at all. I'm 84 and am now using my 5th computer (when it became too expensive to repair I bought a new, faster, better one. All were Apples. Each laster about 3-4 years). I also have an iPhone and just got an iPad. My grandchildren synced them all; only problem I get three of every e-mail! The grandchildren offered to put things to right but one is in Rhode Island, one in Maryland, one in California plus there are 5 more in assorted places! so I just trash the extras until the next occasion when we get together!!