In 1959, a transistor was invented at Bell Labs that would change the world. The MOSFET was the first transistor that could be miniaturised and mass-produced, paving the way for affordable computers, and spawning a brand new era for humanity: the Information Age1.
Computers are ubiquitous today, and while the younger generation learned them through necessity, some elderly people found themselves left behind, missing the extensive benefits that come with computer technology. The Australian Human Rights Commission claimed that “due to the speed with which the information technology revolution has occurred, many older people in Australia had found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide”2—a problem that must be quickly fixed.
In this article, we’ll explore the relationship between the elderly and technology, the considerable benefits that computer technology can provide, and how to help our seniors become proficient computer users.
Digital literacy for Australian seniors
In 2016, the Commonwealth government announced a $50 million investment in improving the digital literacy of older Australians (50+ years), and getting as many people online as possible. As part of their investment, a survey of approximately 8 million Australians over 50 found that they fall into the following digital literacy categories:
- 36% are “high level” users who perform online activities at least once a week
- 31% are “moderate” users who perform online activities fewer than once a week
- 26% are “low” users who perform online activities no more than once a month
- 8% are “digitally disengaged,” never performing online activities
Regardless of digital literacy levels, 50% of respondents said they wanted to use the internet more.
Benefits for technology for elderly
Countries such as France, Finland, Greece, and India understand the extensive benefits of the internet for people of all ages, and have recognised internet access as a basic human right. For senior citizens who are vulnerable to loneliness, learning to use technology is even more important. Here are the main benefits for seniors using technology:
They become more connected
Perhaps the greatest benefit to using technology (specifically the internet) is how it helps us to communicate. Email, Skype, Messenger, WhatsApp, Facebook, and tens of other services allow us to message, comment, call, and video call each other with the click of a button. It breaks down the figurative walls that close us in, and can help to combat debilitating feelings of loneliness—a leading cause of death for socially isolated seniors.
It boosts their confidence
Learning a new skill builds confidence. The shiny black iPhone is no longer a confusing enigma, but a treasure with boundless potential, allowing our seniors to conjure up the faces of their grandkids, share a snap of their blooming daffodils, or battle their lifelong friend in an online game of Scrabble. Confidence allows us to navigate the world effectively and handle setbacks, making it critical to our sense of wellbeing.
Technology offers a huge source of entertainment
If we find ourselves stuck inside on a rainy weekend, we’re no longer restricted to books, games, or what’s on the national television network. A device connected to the internet has access to 4.2 billion pages, including millions of online games, movies, TV shows, news websites, and pretty much anything that interests you. It’s the richest source of entertainment we’ve ever known, and once an older person learns how to access it, they won’t ever have to feel bored again.
Better health management
Many seniors take a huge amount of medication, and visit the doctor regularly to remain healthy. These health challenges can be difficult to manage, and made easier with the use of mobile tracking apps such as Pill Monitor, MedWatcher, and iBP. There are apps that encourage you to eat healthily too, which are incredibly helpful for people of all ages.
They can learn new skills
The internet isn’t just a place for TV shows and memes. There’s a huge number of e-learning resources that allow us to learn new skills, which is estimated to be worth $325 billion by 2025.3 Your elderly loved one might complete a course on nutrition, and learn how a good diet can enhance their wellbeing; they may learn how to create their own blog, and start sharing their stories with the wide world; or they might master the mysterious of the financial markets, and make themselves rich beyond their wildest dreams.
How to teach our elderly to use technology, and improve their digital literacy
As we age, some of us experience cognitive decline as a result of diseases such as Alzheimer’s (or another form of dementia), diabetes, heart disease, as well as issues such as depression, poor vision, and side effects of medication. This makes learning how to use technology difficult and overwhelming for some seniors, particularly if they have little experience. Often, our elderly and technology don’t mix well together.
When it comes to helping seniors learn new technology (such as a computer, tablet, or smartphone), there are some important things to remember.
Start slowly, and explain the obvious
People under 50 take their computer skills for granted. Having used them from a young age, we know exactly what a mouse does, how to quickly access our phone’s apps, and how to type 40 words per minute on a QWERTY keyboard. For a senior citizen who has never used a computer or smartphone before, everything must be learned, and the teacher must constantly remember that what is obvious to them probably isn’t obvious to their elderly student. For example, if you’re teaching your elderly loved one how to search for something in Google, don’t assume that they know what Google is, or be surprised when they refer to it as “the Google.” Everything must be learned, and it must be taught with clarity and bucketloads of patience.
Tackle common uses
Try to think of what your elderly loved one is going to be using the technology for, and have a conversation with them about it. There’s essentials such as Google searches, connecting to friends and family, and being able to message them. Then there’s additional skills such as accessing Netflix and searching for content, finding online games to play with friends, and even completing their weekly shop online. Figure out what your elderly loved one will be doing most, and then slowly train them until they’re confident.
Muster your patience
Many of us have at least one teacher that we remember fondly from school, who motivated us and made learning fun. And it’s likely that every one of those teachers shared a common virtue: patience—a characteristic shared by exceptional teachers the world over. When you’re teaching your elderly loved one how to use technology, whether it’s how to post a Facebook status about the latest political gaff, finding a cheap flight to Melbourne to visit their sister, or browsing for a car upgrade, you will need to muster every ounce of patience that you have, and try your best to hide any frustration you may feel. When you’re being taught something new and difficult, your teacher rolling your eyes at you is the equivalent of being called an idiot, and will probably result in you quitting and never trying again.
Be available to help
Nobody likes to feel stupid, and technology has a knack of making the most tech-savvy of us feel like imbeciles. Imagine how your elderly parent feels when they open an app that they have been comfortably using for months, to find that the design has completely changed. Messages and notifications are no longer in the same place, and it isn’t clear where they’ve moved to. Suddenly, their ability to quickly message a family member has vanished, replaced by virtual walls of isolation, and a feeling of desperation.
Your elderly loved one will run into problems like this when using technology, and by telling them that you’re just a phone call away, you’ll help to put their mind at ease, and encourage them to keep on using it.