For some older adults, the connectivity of personal computers, smartphones and Facebook changed their lives for the better.
According to AARP, 76 percent of adults over age 50 own a desktop, laptop or tablet. Those aged 65 and younger, and those with higher incomes, are more likely to have access to the internet at home, as well as have a device and consistently use it.
But millions of other older adults are too intimidated by technology to even take their smartphones out of the box.
Of a record 46 million seniors living in the United States today, 58 percent don’t own a smartphone, and 33 percent of those aged 65 and over don’t use the internet at all. About half of seniors use the internet, but don’t have access at home.
Those who do use technology have discovered a variety of ways in which their lives are easier and more fun. Whether it’s online Scrabble games, Facebook groups specific to their community, or easier bill paying and banking, technology is becoming a greater part of all our lives.
Johnnie Mullin, 68, teaches residents at the Eugene Abbey how to use technology.
“Most of them think they’ll never use it,” Mullin says. “Some of them just don’t want to. But I find if they come and they sit for a while they usually acquiesce quite easily. I quickly get rid of the myth that they’re too old to learn something new, and I don’t use a bunch of techie talk.”
Mullin can even teach residents with the beginnings of Alzheimer’s and dementia how to successfully use devices like a Kindle. It just may take more repetition to help them remember where the on/off switch is.
“I primarily teach how to use email, but I also teach games because certain games tap the brain,” she says. “That keeps their brain working. They love card games and puzzle games. They also want to learn how to take pictures and how to send pictures over email. Also, music - they love Pandora because it’s free music.”
Mullin believes that learning from someone other than a family member is often the best approach for older adults who are eager to get started. There’s less frustration and more enthusiasm with a teacher.
The public library regularly offers classes geared to increasing technological literacy, as do the local community centers.
The classes offered by Campbell Community Center in Eugene are primarily for hobbies and recreation, but a growing number of those classes are geared toward technology.
During his nine years as the Campbell Center director, Tom Powers has noticed some correlations between seniors and technology.
“First, there was a huge economic divide that exactly aligned with people’s access to and using technology,” he says. “Next, there was a divide between people who use mobile versus desktops.”
Powers, 50, uses a smartphone but he prefers using a tablet because it’s easier to see with declining eyesight. His 17-year-old daughter is an avid user of technology, and he can see the difference between the generations.
“What’s intuitive to my daughter is not intuitive to me, or to other seniors,” he says. “For older folks, there’s a whole new set of symbols you have to learn.”
That includes power buttons on electronic devices, which no longer include the self-explanatory “on” or “off.” Instead, it’s a circle intersected by a small line. If you’re taking an electronic device out of the box for the first time, you may not know how to get started.
One of the Campbell Center’s most popular uses is the internet access available in the lobby or on the benches outside.
“People hang out on our front bench for hours after we close, working on their tablet or laptops,” Powers says.
The center also has a room of 10 computers with basic programs and free internet access, connected to a printer. A volunteer who knows computer basics is usually available.
Recently, John Horne, 75, used the computers to check his email. “I’m in the construction business and I use it to keep in touch with various contractors,” he says. “They’re faster and easier and the security is better on these than what I’d have at home.”
Mike Smith, 60, was using the computer to watch videos about training mules because he’s trying to relocate to Montana for a mule packing school.
“There’s knowledge on there that’s free,” he says. “In the past you’d have to send away for a how-to book and wait six to eight weeks to get it. I really enjoy the aspect that all this knowledge is on here and it’s free.”
Smith has no interest in social media, but for many other older adults, keeping in touch via Facebook is a prime motivator. Paying bills, banking and getting tax forms is much easier online. Powers says Social Security no longer mails out printed statements, leaving recipients with online as their only choice to receive information — or take hours out of their day to visit a Social Security office.
Ironically, registering for classes at Campbell is easiest online – you can register about 45 days ahead of the printed recreation guide. But it means those who don’t use a computer can miss out on popular programs that fill quickly.
Powers says he’s working to correct this disparity, but there’s no doubt that internet access provides an advantage.
Mullin loves giving older adults a glimpse into how technology can enrich their lives. Once they learn the basics and are no longer afraid that they’ll “break something” when they push a button, they can see just how much is available to them.
For instance, the new Kindle comes with a program called Alexa, which users can interact with by voice. Alexa can play music, set alarms, stream podcasts, play audiobooks, and provide weather, traffic and other real-time information.
“You can ask it questions,” Mullin says. “They can ask questions like, ‘How many feet in a mile?’ or, ‘Who was president in 1934?’ and they get the answer right away. When they discover things like that, they just are thrilled.”