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Teaching Technology to the Senior in Your Life

How to keep the 65+ crowd connected

When the pandemic forced in-person business, socializing and travel to grind to a halt, technology leaped forward to fill in the gaps. However, this left a section of the population— seniors over 65—at a distinct disadvantage. Slow adopters of technology, only about 59 percent of older Americans go online according to PEW Research. Our current times demand a greater need to access the internet for essential services. Here are some experiences I witnessed seniors struggling with.

Accessing a Zoom meeting seems simple to most of us, but it involved too many steps and jargon for some of my older business clients. Reaching out to senior friends to check on their wellness, they expressed that their doctor had said they could schedule a COVID-19 test, and later a vaccine, online, but did not know how to do that. Housebound senior family members needed to learn how to grocery shop online. The examples seem endless, but the saddest were from people in a care home who were lonely, not seeing children and grandchildren for many months, and not knowing how to go online to do so.

Even though pandemic restrictions are easing, we are becoming a more connected world by the moment. Following are some suggestions for helping the seniors in your life stay in touch with people, services and products they may need by using a smartphone, tablet or computer and going on the internet.

Teaching technology to the elderly
The process of helping seniors with technology can be rewarding and joyful, but also takes loads of patience. All of my senior coaching took place remotely, but these same steps can be applied in person. If you have seniors in your life, here are a few tips to help them stay connected digitally.

1. Be patient
When I expressed to a client’s administrative assistant that the older company president was having trouble joining online meetings, her response was “I don’t know why, I’ve given him the password three times!”

Older people in our lives have wisdom and value in so many ways, but they did not grow up with technology like younger generations. Even if they use some online tools, each new thing can feel very complicated. Patience is key, as well as being caring and encouraging. Take things one step at a time.

For the older adult leader in question, I scheduled a one-on-one session with him to walk through the steps to join a meeting. This allowed him plenty of time to ask questions without the embarrassment of being in a meeting with others. When someone you are helping has an “ah ha” moment or gets something right, lather on the praise.

People learn better when they are interested and engaged, so taking the time to answer questions will help you teach more effectively. Avoid lengthy answers. Keep to the necessary knowledge and don’t be in a rush. You can break down lessons into more than one session, but make sure to recap before beginning any new topic and check for understanding. Also, don’t let too much time lapse between lessons.

Senior couple using a tablet

2. Set the proper learning environment
The key to allowing senior learners to thrive is their atmosphere and environment. A new study reported in Reuters Health found adults are much more likely to be focused and better able to ignore distraction in the morning than in the afternoon. 

Schedule a morning session and keep things fun, friendly and relaxed. Encourage the senior to keep a notebook, and feel free to write down anything that will help them remember the steps. Ask them to tell you if they need to pause to write something down or ask a question.

You are not trying to educate older folks in a school environment, so just take it easy and leave them with the impression that the device they are using is fun and helpful. 

3. Tailor to their interests
If the senior in your life has “gotten by this far without using the internet” they may be surprised by some of the fun or time saving things they can do. Start out by asking them what their interests are, and mention a few other things they could do. Here are some examples that are popular with the older set:

  • Research topics of interest
  • Video chat with loved ones
  • Shop securely online
  • Find recipes and diet tips
  • Use Facebook to connect with friends and family members
  • Read books
  • Watch videos
  • Connect to services: Health advice, pharmacy, housekeeper, landscaper, utilities, rent or mortgage servicer
  • Play games or do puzzles
  • Make appointments
  • Use a calendar with reminders
  • Take and store photos

You may have to show them the steps for each area they are interested in, such as connecting with a relative on a video chat platform or social media, or how to buy household products or groceries online.

Keep their abilities in mind when deciding how to present information. Everyone has a different approach to how they absorb information, but it generally falls into three learning categories. Some people are more visual. Pictures and diagrams help. Other people are auditory—they want to hear an explanation. You may find that hands on methods (tactile learning) work well with technology. This would involve having your senior practice skills themselves with their device. Try a combination and emphasize the method that gets the best results. 

As mentioned, it is good to have a senior take notes as they go along, but you can also provide a simple, plain language “cheat sheet” with some images to reinforce repetitive tasks like booting up a computer, logging on to the internet and opening a browsing window.

If you are helping a younger senior, they may benefit from a resource book. I hate the name of the “For Dummies” series, but the books are usually quite good. There is an edition covering basic computing for seniors, as well as other segments such as laptops, tablets and cell phones. Just be aware of the publication date before purchasing—the newest one I could find was published in 2019, which is almost out of date in technology terms.

4. Avoid doing things for them
The goal is for older people to be able to go online themselves and do what they set out to do. In person, it’s hard to resist the impulse to take over and help them through a few steps. But then what happens when you are not there? 

As slow a process as this may be, you need to let your elderly students familiarize through touch. Start at the very beginning with how to turn on the device, how to get the home screen and how to navigate. If they are using a mouse or a touchpad, you need to let them explore all the buttons and what they do. 

Here are some common tasks to teach:

  • Knowledge of computer parts (mouse, USB port and camera)
  • Opening and closing files and applications
  • Basic internet browsing
  • Basic email usage (sign in, receiving, replying and attachments)
  • Creating and saving documents
  • Practicing storage concepts (files and folders)
  • Learning basic network concepts (connection, uploading and downloading
  • Understanding security risks like malware, file security and online security
  • Adjusting settings on smart devices
  • Use of social media networks like Facebook 
  • Use of video meeting and chat apps like Zoom
  • Internet banking and bill paying

If you need a little more help to decide what to share, check out these resources for seniors developed by Net Literacy:

5. Teach them how to get free resources
From books and games to video tutorials on YouTube, there are a ton of free things to experience on the internet. When seniors achieve a certain age, they can also tap into a ton of discounts and special programs. Show them how to bookmark local senior centers for activities and events and a coupon site such as RetailMeNot. Who doesn’t love free stuff?

6. Avoid tech speak
There are so many common jargon words we use every day you might not even notice you are using tech speak. Depending on their starting point of knowledge, a senior may need an explanation of terms such as app, monitor, pen or stylus, CPU, browsing, scrolling and more. Try explaining what each part is, then what it is called. Use simple, everyday language. Again, keep the explaining to a minimum. If they want more detail, let them ask. 

7. Acknowledge achievements
Learners of all ages are more motivated when they are encouraged. Recognize progress and celebrate milestones. Give compliments freely, especially when they are really dedicated to trying something new. 

Keep in mind these achievements might be pretty small, and some might want to give up if they are frustrated. I came across a couple of neighbors out fishing one day. They were so happy to have a new smartphone, but they didn’t know how to answer it! They said they had tried all the buttons. I called their phone and showed them how to swipe the screen and a couple of other calling functions, including hanging up. We practiced it a couple of times, and by the time I saw them the next week, they were confidently using the device, and had even moved on to texting. 

So, when the senior in your life grasps the tiniest thing, like remembering how to power on a device, make sure and recognize the accomplishment. 

8. Be aware: Seniors are vulnerable to online scams
The American Journal of Public Health estimates about three million seniors suffer from some sort of scam every year. Other sources estimate the number much higher since the majority of scams go unreported. This represents many billions of dollars each year.

Seniors lose more money to online fraud than any other age group. Romance scams, tech support scams, fake insurance policies and pyramid schemes are common traps, along with fake prizes and imposter scams, such as someone pretending to be from the IRS or impersonating a friend or family member to ask for money.

There are many reasons seniors are particularly vulnerable. Persons of earlier generations are more trusting, and that makes them more susceptible. Loneliness and isolation can be a key factor. If there is no one to check on their finances, problems can pile up, no matter how much money, or how little, they have. A wealthy elderly person may think nothing of giving an imposter grandchild a sum when asked. Those less fortunate might be drawn into a get rich quick scheme.

Sometimes the elderly just get bullied into handing over money. Problems can get worse as people age and slowly lose some cognitive brain function. Embarrassment is the lead cause these crimes go unreported.

Diplomatically explain to the seniors in your life that there are bad actors on the internet (and phone) that prey on older folks. Mention the different ways so they are aware ahead of time. Let them know you (or a trusted family member) is someone they can turn to for advice if they ever have questions or someone asks them for money.

9. Help protect seniors online
As much as I have emphasized having seniors do everything for themselves in order to learn, you or a reliable professional can help set up a new device and install appropriate antivirus and antimalware software. These can be set for regular updates and renewals. This is also a good time to put a small amount of apps the senior user would like on the home screen, set up an email account and a few bookmarks.

However, seniors must know and participate in online safety. A few things to go over include:

  • Keeping passwords secure
  • Not revealing personal information on the internet
  • How to identify scammers
  • Ask for advice before downloading software or signing up for new products
  • Ask for advice when someone asks you to make an unexpected payment

Make sure they know internet safety is important, but try not to sound too scary. This will make them feel confident that they can explore the advantages of technology without worrying about being taken advantage of.    

10. Check in on a regular basis
You might find the hesitancy seniors in your life have over using technology can be overcome with a little support and encouragement. Make sure to check back often to see how they are progressing and answer any questions that have come up. 

People willing to help seniors with technology can play a key role in helping our most valued community members gain valuable skills, have access to information, conduct business and stay connected to friends and family.

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