My father, Earle Dunphy, has loved gadgets ever since his father bought him a Miniman Germanium radio when he was 10 years old. “It was shaped like a red rocket ship,” Dad recalls with a big smile. “It had a ball on the nose that slid back and forth to change the stations.” This quaint device sparked a passion that never abandoned him. Throughout my childhood, Dad would regularly come home with a new toy under his arm: a Sony Walkman, a Vic 20 home computer, an Atari 2600, a Panasonic top-loading VCR.
But my father’s tech bubble burst when he retired in 2004. Initially, it was the drop in income that put things like MP3 players, mobile phones and TiVo frustratingly out of reach. Then other issues cropped up to put a damper on Dad’s technophilia: Declining eyesight made the small print hard to read, hearing loss garbled synthetic speech, and arthritis compromised his ability to type or even touch screens.
The cognitive changes that come with age compound the challenge of keeping up with ever-evolving technology. While verbal skills and judgment tend to remain strong, attention, spatial perception and memory fade, preventing many older people from enjoying today’s high-tech toys.
“It drives you crazy,” my father laments, adding a familiar refrain: “It’s not easy growing old.”
But there's good news: Between increasingly sensitive design and mushrooming educational offerings for older techno-buffs, it’s easier than ever to keep up with the rate of change. And the personal benefits — more entertainment, mental challenges, an expanded community — are well worth the effort.
Understanding the Obstacles to Using Technology
Whether it’s you bumbling through the myriad functions of your new smart phone or a disheartened parent feeling he’ll never be able to navigate the Internet on his own, there are more opportunities than ever for gaining the necessary knowledge, skills and confidence. But you need to understand the nature of the challenge to effectively address it.
Wendy Rogers, Ph.D., a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Psychology, emphasizes that the problem is not only overwhelming products but also the skills needed to work them. "New technology places demands on our cognitive abilities,” she says. And that’s compounded when products, software and websites don’t take into account the limitations of people as they age.
“A poorly designed website forces users to remember where things are, a cluttered site imposes attentional demands, and unclear navigational components demands spatial ability,” says Rogers. And then there are visual challenges to older eyes (small type and lack of contrast make it harder to read text onscreen), not to mention the motor skills required to work a mouse. Unfortunately, when older users — many of whom have the same physical limitations as my father — get frustrated, they often give up.
Another significant roadblock relates to the “use it or lose it” phenomenon. Being part of the work force requires employees to keep up with and adopt new technologies. When people retire, scale back hours or start working from home, they tend to fall behind. These days, whole worlds can change in six months.
“The lack of confidence in learning new technologies is commonly coupled with not seeing their peers using it,” says Mark Agronin, M.D., Ph.D., a geriatric psychiatrist at Miami Jewish Health Systems and the author of How We Age. Once you remove the everyday necessity of a technology, it can seem dispensable or even a burden.
How to Get the Help You Need
To help people combat these challenges and embrace new technologies, various training programs are springing up from private businesses, non-government organizations, community colleges and centers, private schools and technology gurus, as well as at web sites like www.seniornet.org, www.oats.org and www.senior-surf.org. Apple has always led the way in this department. Any customer who buys an Apple computer, iPad or iPhone can pay an additional $99 for a year’s worth of unlimited one-on-one 50-minute tutorials for that product, covering everything from simple operating instructions to advanced programming options (www.apple.com/retail/onetoone).
Although the training sessions aren’t targeted at older users, Andy Halper, a trainer — or “creative” in Applespeak — at the Apple store in Edina, Minn., estimates that half his students are at least 50 years old and primarily interested in getting to know their digital camera or iPad, and in learning more about web browsing.
He’s especially fond of one 82-year-old man who received a Mac and training sessions as a gift from his grandkids. Not wanting to offend them, the grandfather attended a one-to-one but showed little interest — until Halper showed him how to scan photographs. With his new skill, the customer created a photo album to commemorate his recently deceased wife. He made 40 copies for his family and gave one to the store.
Elie Gindi, 61, founder of ElderGadget.com, was inspired by his ailing father to build a website to help older people select and use devices that can improve their quality of life. The site evaluates the various features of new gadgetry —including smart phones, cameras, tablets and software — from the perspective of a senior.
“The way we evaluate these things is by testing them against four specific criteria: easy to use, easy to see, easy to hear and easy to understand,” Gindi says. The ElderGadget team also assesses products according to how well they satisfy users’ objectives — not just by reading the spec sheet. “If it doesn’t do what you need it to do, don’t buy it. That’s our mantra.”
How to Find the Help You Need
The Central Oregon Council on Aging (COCOA) in Bend, Ore., runs a program that pairs seniors with the true tech gurus: teenagers. Pamela Norr, executive officer of the council, hit on the idea when she noticed that her parents would ask her teenage kids for assistance with email, Facebook, digital cell phones and cameras.
After Norr recruited high school students who were studying computer tech to her program, she alerted the community. She then set up free Wednesday night classes in COCOA’s conference room. One of her favorite moments occurred when a teen tried to assuage his mentee’s frustration with Facebook by saying, “Don’t worry — it’s actually a complex site. Everyone tries to make it seem easy, but it’s really pretty complicated.”
Norr notes that the program did more than help older people overcome their fear of technology. “It wasn’t really about them connecting on the Internet,” she says. “It was how the seniors and teens interacted.” This gave the seniors confidence as they ventured into the new frontier.
Geriatric psychiatrist Agronin agrees that confidence is key to learning today's technology: “It enhances access to an entire world that transcends most of the physical limitations associated with aging.”
Here's my proof: my dad. The other day I got a Skype call from him asking if I’d ever heard of WebBrain. “It’s a new app that helps you organize ideas by creating a mind map,” he told me. “It might help your writing.”
Mike Dunphy taught English in Europe and Turkey for 10 years, and now writes about arts, culture and travel from his home in New York City.
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