Helping Seniors Use Their Tech

It’s less than a week before Christmas and it’s about the time when someone says, “Hey! Let’s get Gramma a tablet or smart phone for Christmas!” According to Pew Research, 13% of seniors own a smart phone and the AARP estimates about 50% of seniors are online regularly and about 30% are on social media sites like Skype, Facebook, etc.

But it’s not just as easy as buying the senior in your life a new piece of technology and assuming they will immediately be skillful and comfortable using it. Some are like my mom was. Thanks to the Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, she was actually on the Internet before I was. I also have two aunts in their 80s who are both active Facebook users.

But, then there are seniors like my dad. Back in the late 1970s, he took an Introduction to BASIC class. But, after, he really had no interest in computers. When my mom died in 2009, we tried passing our old Mac Mini on to him and my husband sat down with him to teach him how to use Gmail. While he showed interest at first, he never touched the computer again and was glad to have the desk space back when we took the Mini back.

If you are gifting technology to a senior in your life this holiday season, Sarah Rieger, Director of Resident Services at The Kenwood by Senior Star, offers these tips for helping you help them get started.

1) Don’t teach too much, too fast. Start with one or two functions, like making a call and sending a text. Then move on to using the email app, playing games and so on.

2) Take it step, by step, by step… by step. If you had to teach someone how to back out of a parking space for the first time, you’d be incredibly detailed, right? “Turn on the ignition. Put your foot on the pad on the left, which is the brake. Shift to the letter R for Reverse.” You want to use that same level of detail when teaching seniors how to perform even the most basic functions.

3) Tell, don’t show. Seniors learn best when they are able to do for themselves, instead of having you show them. This can take a great deal of patience; if a senior loses their place on a web page, it can be tempting to take control of the mouse and show them what to do. Resist the urge to show them, even if takes a while to get back on track.

4) Keep a crib sheet. After you’ve gone through every step, write up a cheat sheet outlining what you did. Go over the cheat sheet a few times, let the senior in your life practice for a few days, and then get back together to see how they’re doing.

5) Buy similar products. If you’re considering a tablet for a senior who already had an iPhone, but an iPad. Products within the same families are easy for seniors to learn because they function so similarly.

6) Don’t make assumptions. Terms that are familiar to the tech-savvy aren’t necessarily to seniors, who didn’t grow up with the technology. Be thorough in your explanations, and even over-simplify whenever you can.

7) Accessorize carefully. Our sense of touch diminishes as we get older, making our fingertips less sensitive. Arthritis can make movements even more difficult. As a result, apps that require just the touch of a fingertip can actually be more difficult for seniors to use. A stylus is a practical accessory that will help seniors navigate touch screens. Avoid thick protective screens or cases that cover buttons, which could make them hard to depress and more difficult to use.

8) Just do it. If there are tasks that only have to be done once – like installing an email program or setting up an email address – just do it. It will be easier than teaching seniors how to do something they’ll never have to do again.

9) Keep it simple. Make usernames and passwords easy to remember. (Read: Avoid special characters and other security-enhancing functions.) Write down the username and password and keep it with the device. That probably sends shivers down your spine, but it allows for greater self-sufficiency on the senior’s part.

10) Define search credibility. If you’re teaching a senior how to do a web search, show them examples of credible information – and define what is not credible. Be specific, e.g., “If it’s in a yellow box or on the right side of the page, it’s an ad.” Help them differentiate between credible and non-credible web addresses and search results.

In order for them to reach that “skillful and comfortable” level, as Sarah says, just go slow and be patient. Teaching technology isn’t an easy task, but with a little practice and patience, your hard work – and theirs – will pay off.