How to Help Seniors with Technology

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.

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.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine.

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