young adult helping older adult with technology

Making Technology Accessible to Older Adults

Grandparents’ Day is coming up on Sunday the 11th. Whether you’re a literal grandparent, a foster grandparent, a great-aunt or -uncle, or an honorary relative for a friend’s grandchildren, we wish you and the kids a special day sharing special activities, in-person or virtually.

Many older adults who never expected to need digital technology—after all, they did fine growing up in a world where “high-tech” meant a color television and an answering machine—first decide otherwise when their grandchildren beg to see, not just hear, them during long-distance chats. Once you’ve personally experienced the benefits of video communication—or of telehealth, online ordering, “smart” homes, or streamed entertainment—it becomes hard to imagine life without.

Of course, first you need to know the options and how to use them. Which can be a problem if you have limited funds, get a headache trying to figure out your TV remote, or don’t know the difference between dial-up and broadband.

image of hands holding a phone with laptop in background

You’re Never Too Old to Learn

If the internet is still foreign territory and you’ve never met an app that didn’t stump you, don’t be afraid to ask a grandchild or young friend for tutoring. They love to teach the grownups, and often are experts in easy-and-fun starter activities (such as finding specific music/movies or playing games together—Words With Friends, anybody?). And where games or research are involved, you’ll still find plenty of opportunities to teach the kids a few things.

If you don’t know anyone who’s already a savvy tech user—or if the users you know are too busy, impatient, or incomprehensible for you—other training options are readily available.

  • Public libraries, community colleges, and community centers offer free or low-cost classes on a variety of technological topics.
  • Any of the above, plus Easterseals chapters and social-service agencies, can recommend Digital Navigators specially trained for one-on-one coaching.
  • And if the real problem is that your budget for high-quality home internet looks small, there are government and business-sponsored programs for making it more affordable. See our article “Library Hotspots and Lift Zones” for a recent overview, plus directions to websites with the latest information.  

Use It Well

On the other side of the coin, you may find the digital world understandable and accessible, but worry about its dark side. We’ve all heard of social-media addictions, cyberbullying, and major security breaches. And even if you don’t really believe the more extreme rumors, human imagination finds it difficult to completely ignore claims that Big Brother is still watching you through your Zoom camera after the computer is shut down and unplugged.

Knowledge really is power, so trying to avoid problems by avoiding the digital world is likely to backfire: the more you’re unsure about, the more likely you are to get anxious over everything you hear. And when you do use digital technology (if only for texts and email), you’re at higher risk of falling for a scam or clicking a dangerous link, due to lack of “forewarned is forearmed” information.

For staying informed on digital-scam risks, the AARP Fraud Watch Network is among the best resources for older adults (you don’t have to be an AARP member to use it). Note that one of the first “do’s and don’ts” of responsible internet use is: DO get your information from reliable sources. Certified educational institutions, major nonprofits, established news channels, and government websites all check their postings against known facts and expert opinions. Trust their information over unsubstantiated claims from random contacts.

Additional do’s and don’ts:

  • DON’T share anything on social media, or even by email, until you’re positive it’s true and useful.
  • DON’T click any unknown digital link, especially not one associated with any claim that immediate action is required.
  • DON’T ever use social media for thoughtless venting. If basic civility isn’t adequate reason to refrain, consider that once you’ve posted it, it’s there for anyone to find—including people whom you most want to see your best side.
  • DON’T get involved in, or even read, lengthy comment-thread arguments. They accomplish nothing except to intensify everyone’s preexisting opinions.
  • DO use apps and social media for communicating in positive ways: notes of encouragement, sharing useful tips, even helping your grandchildren with their homework!
  • DO set healthy boundaries on your digital use: e.g., play games only during certain hours; turn off all devices after 9 p.m. (you’ll sleep better after an hour away from lit screens); keep no more than two screens’ worth of apps on your phone. (Sure, we love apps—they’re our mission and business, after all—but you’ll get more from them by saving up-front-and-easy-to-find positions for the ones you use regularly. You don’t have to delete the others from your phone—just from the visible screens.)
  • DO save time for favorite activities that aren’t 100 percent dependent on technology. You can get the best of both worlds by using apps to enhance your gardening, exercise, or outdoor-reading experience.
  • DO know your own passions, goals, and relationship needs. Then let these direct your personal use of technology, and never mind what some expert (who’s never met you) says “should” be best for “older adults” in general!

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