Empowering Seniors through Communication Technology

Written by: Francine Toder. Posted: December 10, 2013. 


Ruth was 90 when I met her through an organization that tends to the various needs of senior citizens. Her only child was estranged from her, and my goal was to provide companionship a few hours per week. What I found amazed me and put to rest any lingering age stereotypes I still might have had. Our game plan for how to spend time changed radically. 

In her early eighties Ruth learned how to use a computer out of curiosity and the desire to be part of the larger world. Bright and articulate, though visually challenged and slow on her feet, she proceeded to teach the residents of her senior community what she knew.

In the 1990s the online world was less complex. At that time Ruth took an active role in the programming of closed circuit TV and on-site intranet. She was considered a computer guru in her local community nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley, CA. That was almost 20 years ago; when technology spoke primarily to early adopters, techies, and generation X. Was Ruth unusual in her ability to learn to learn how to use a computer, cell phone, or the Internet? I don’t think so. 

We now live at a time when even young children can master technology, as I’ve learned from my four-year-old twin grandsons who can find their favorite programs on a smart phone, iPad, or computer just like any adult. There are few true technophobes under the age of 65. Most midlife folks capably navigate all the devices they need. The only generation that didn’t grow up with electronic technology is the cohort group that preceded baby boomers. 

How do we reach this older population and where are the teachers? Those over 65 can’t be lumped together as they aren’t a homogeneous group. So the challenge begins by identifying and assessing the needs and goals of various subsets. For example, healthy, high cognitive-functioning individuals with an interest in learning will be an easy lot to teach, similar to Ruth. And the perfect teacher is the typical communication-savvy teen willing to share his or her expertise.

Speaking of teens, many of whom would make ideal technology tutors, consider the new initiative launched and led by Dailybreak Media  in conjunction with the AARP Foundation's Mentor Up program and DoSomething.org. According to the news release titled, Grandparents Gone Wired Encourages Youth to Teach Tech at Grandma’s House this Holiday Season, “the ‘Grandparents Gone Wired’ campaign . . . encourages young adults to engage their grandparents (or other senior citizens in their lives) in communication-technology by teaching them how to use the Internet, email, social media and other platforms.” 

Consider that there is a wealth of tech-talent in the 13-25 year old population, adolescents and young adults who spend more time with apps than with their family and friends. Connecting them with the curious boomers-and-beyond target group is a win-win for all.  Young tech enthusiasts love to share what they know while seniors get to benefit from these energetic proponents. Such a strategy can work seamlessly with the vast majority of 65+ aged adults who have intact memory and no major impediments to learning.

This idea also harmonizes well with the Tech-enhanced life proposition: to help people experience a higher quality of life as they age, through technology—based on offerings, some of which have yet to be conceptualized or created. This organization sees the role of young and middle-aged adults as teachers and inventors of the very technologies that will aid seniors. 

What a rich and creative time in the history of communication technology! No one who wants to learn needs to be left out. But what about those with physical disabilities, limited eyesight, or lessened cognitive functioning? With desire to learn and the right adaptive measures, learning is not difficult for physically challenged seniors.  The best teachers are adults over twenty-five with patience and empathy. Since folks with limited cognitive functioning face some additional hurdles, this topic needs further clarification. 

Recently a sixty-ish colleague mentioned his eighty-something mother needing help with managing her finances following the death of her husband. This devoted son took on that responsibility for her. He commented to me about the very perplexing and emotionally charged process of parenting his parent.  Their changing roles threw both of them into an upsetting stage that might have been avoidable for the time being. 

When we spoke I asked him if his mother was cognitively impaired. As a psychologist I know what that means but in plain language it relates to a person’s ability to manage their own lives reasonably well, including a fairly good working memory, good judgment, and correct orientation to time and place. Even those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia would fit into this category.  My colleague’s mother, based on his perceptions, certainly fit this category.  In fact, her only disability seemed to be a lack of training. So why the need for him to take over her tasks?

This is a tricky but common situation. As the younger generation, we are anxious to help our parents have an easier time in life. It makes us uncomfortable to watch them struggle, just like it might have been in reverse decades ago when they helped with our homework. Helping is normal and natural but going beyond that can actually enable helplessness. 

Here’s another way to assess the situation.  Does your parent really need your help or is he or she simply accommodating you because you show discomfort or lack of confidence in their ability to learn? A second consideration is your parent’s interest level and curiosity. Sometimes the fear associated with learning something new, and especially if seemingly alien, can be the culprit. Also, worry about a parent being incapable can surface and undermine the learning process.  These obstacles can generally be handled through compassion and support.

Maybe your parent’s interest in learning new technology is low, but it can be cultivated by the right strategy.  The ability to communicate via social media is reinforcing. Seeing pictures of grandchildren or other loved ones almost instantly after the photos are taken is a potent stimulus and entree into the technology world. Communicating becomes easier with friends who are too far away to visit physically. Interacting with them by video is almost as good as the real thing, and is highly reinforcing.

New skills can lead to more confidence in managing online financial affairs, searching the web, shopping online and more. To boost digital skills, a patient adult teacher is best, and often it is not the adult child of this parent—too much drama! 

Teaching someone to fish rather than providing the fish is a great strategy but it won’t always work. An overly enthusiastic “adult” child or a very insecure or inflexible older adult can trigger the “just let me do it for you” response. And unfortunately this cycle can lead to a downward spiral toward further dependence—so keep an eye on this trajectory.

For those with definite cognitive limitations, new options have recently emerged, created by entrepreneurs, neuroscientists and university faculty.  One such application is the cognitive helper developed by BrainAid.  It is an online app to keep track of its user’s daytime activities, appointments and time-line designed for those in the early and middle levels of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. It is ideal for someone already familiar with how to use a smartphone or computer. 

Another new product is designed to keep track of purchases for users whose buying judgment is no longer reliable. If a purchase is made or bank account accessed beyond a preset amount, the application triggers a freeze followed by a report to the person’s agent or caretaker. It is designed to foster as much independence as possible under the circumstances.

Keep in mind that age is not pathology and cognitive decline is not inevitable. Most older adults, despite some limitations, are perfectly capable of entering into the world of smartphones, tablets, and the cloud. Even if the technology is not appealing in and of itself, it can lead to other desirable ends in a person’s life, including heightening interest in new directions.

In The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty, I explain how learning one of several fine arts after sixty can lead to better brain health.  Readers meet first-time “artists,” some of whom learned to use a computer in order to write their memoir, or to play the cello, often enhanced by on-line YouTube tutorials. 

For example, David Finkel, cellist with the Emerson String Quartet offers guidance through his music blogs for cello, intended for new and experienced musicians.  Another direction for those inclined toward the visual arts can be found in apps that allow a tablet to become a canvas to create “water colors,” paintings and sketches with “pen and ink.” No need to carry around messy art supplies with this limitless art tool. Perhaps art in this form can lead to its non-virtual extension—a canvas. 

We are living at a time in history when all of these possibilities are either currently available or so close that they are practically visible on the horizon. The new technologies benefit everyone—let’s not leave out our most esteemed seniors.





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Key words: 
seniors, technology, computers, social media, David Finckel

Last Updated: April 30, 2021.

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