Life is better online, older web users find

April 26, 2015
computer lesson matej kolakovic

When my mother announced at 80 she’d inherited a computer from a friend, I had mixed feelings. I was proud she’d taken on the challenge of going online but concerned about the stress and frustration coming her way. Who hasn’t torn their hair out at a computer glitch, virus, crash or frozen screen?  My mother has many talents but practical and technical skills are not among them.

A widow, my mother lives alone on the other side of the continent from her children and grandchildren, and if anything is guaranteed to threaten her contentment and sense of independence, it’s when things break down. Every time the automatic sprinkler system goes awry, endangering her garden in a broiling Perth summer, she declares she’ll decamp to an aged care facility. “I can’t take the aggravation anymore,” she’ll howl before jumping into the car and heading off to the gym. Seven years on, my mother can hardly live without her computer. The second-hand model has long since been replaced by a fancy Mac. “I’d miss it terribly,” she told me the other day.

Her story, it turns out, is fairly typical of older adopters: computer phobia becomes computer friendship with the right help. A new survey from the UK found that a large majority of older (55+) internet users say life is better online. The survey for the leading charity Age UK found 85 per cent agreed life had changed for the better and nearly half could not imagine their life without the internet.

In my mother’s case, it can’t be said she’s passionate and super-savvy. “I’m not one who sits for hours,” she says. It’s had its frustrations. But her life has definitely been enhanced. It’s the simple things that have made a difference: email, Skype, the web. She catches up on political news on the web, searches for restaurant menus and movie schedules (illegible or non-existent in her newspaper). Her friends email her jokes; her son sends photos from the ski fields of France. She’s watched her granddaughter in London grow up via Skype and talked to her every week. Now photos of the first great grandchild arrive regularly from Sydney. She can read my blog.

And thank you Quentin, the computer fixer from heaven. I think Quentin came with the computer. He taught her the basics, and has soothed out the angst and the glitches over the years.

Many of my friends have parents who are refuseniks. The parents say, “Leave me alone. I don’t need it. I don’t want it. I’m not interested. It’s a waste of money.” Some think they’re “too old to learn about new technologies” or that the technology is changing too fast for them. The fear is understandable. Many people, even in their fifties, have had no opportunity to use a computer in their work. Computers cost money. Bad teachers who move too fast, take over, and forget how confusing it is to be a novice who thinks a ‘mouse’ is a rodent can be a big turn-off; as are group classes with more than three people per tutor.

But it’s such a pity. Australian research also has shown the benefits of older people going online. With the right equipment and help, recalcitrants become converts. A terrific study by the Australian Population and Migration Research Centre at the University of Adelaide found people felt more independent, better informed, and retained closer contact with family and friends after they’d learnt computer skills. The study was based on a pilot program that provided 48 older people in rural communities with their choice of a laptop computer or an Apple iPad, 3G Internet connection, personalised tuition, and ongoing support for 12 months.

Surveys taken at the start and end of the project show a dramatic change in people’s attitudes. Not only did they become much more positive and confident about using the technology, they even rated their health better at the end, perhaps a consequence of feeling more connected to their community and more engaged.

Nan Bosler has seen it happen thousands of times. At 80 she can look back on a remarkable achievement. In 1998 she set up what’s become the Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association. And since then 300 thousand people over 50 have received usually one-on-one tutoring in computer skills through 120 clubs across Australia.

What can you say to a refusenik? I asked her. “You’d start with their hobbies or interests,” she said. “Say it’s cross-stitching. You’d show a website with cross-stitching patterns and instructions; you find a way to motivate them,” Nan said. “Also a lot of older people find iPads and android tablets easier and more direct. They don’t think it’s a computer.”

It would be wrong to portray older Australians as computer illiterates; mostly they’ve embraced the new technologies. In 2012-13, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found 46 per cent of Australians aged 65+ were internet users. In the 55-64 group it was over 75 per cent. But there’s still a digital divide based on age at a time when government and business often assume everyone’s online to get information. “Some people,” Nan said, “have to be taken by the hand and led gently across the digital divide. There’s so much satisfaction when they do it.”

Were you a late convert? What’s your experience with older people and computers? Do comment.

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