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How students use technology to enrich the lives of seniors

Photo courtesy of Spenser (cc)

My 90-year-old grandfather wanted a laptop.

It was a few years ago at the Heidehof, a long-term care facility in St. Catharines, Ont. where he now lives. For my parents who visit him on a weekly basis—and for me, or really for anyone whose elders have barely come to a proper understanding of a TV remote or a mobile phone—the request seemed to come from nowhere.

It’s not that my grandfather is resistant to technology, or that he lacks the mental capacity to learn new things. It still amazes me that he knows how to operate a VCR. But my parents and I couldn’t imagine why someone his age would be interested in the online world.

We later learned that during mealtimes other residents, many of them also in their 80s and 90s, would bring their laptops to the table to share their latest Internet discoveries. Naturally, my grandpa grew more and more intrigued. So, my parents went out and bought him an Acer.

It has been sitting on a table in his living room, unused, ever since.

Like most people his age, my grandfather has much to offer young people like me. Born in the mid-1920s, he has lived through the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and witnessed the rise of the Internet age. He can offer insight about the past by sharing his experiences and give guidance during difficult times. There’s a lot he can teach me and not much I can teach him.

But there is one thing I can teach him: basic computer skills.

If I showed him how to turn on his laptop, how to check his email, how to do the thousand little things that come so naturally to me, perhaps his laptop wouldn’t go to waste. In the Internet age, we Millennials are the experts. And more often than we realize, our elders now rely on us to understand the digital world around them.

The digital divide

Although seniors are increasingly going online, there continues to be a digital divide between generations.

According to Martine Lagacé, a communications professor who studies ageist communication here at the University of Ottawa, the real divide remains between those over 80 and the rest of the population. Those in their 60s and 70s have had an easier time adapting to new technology. 

At a certain age, many seniors begin to believe they are too old to start learning, or that it’s simply not useful for them to do so. Part of it has to do with impaired mobility and cognitive functions. Another part of it has to do with what we tell them.

“One of the most prevalent stereotypes is that seniors cannot use technology. We think they’re way behind us,” says Lagacé. “The divide can partly be explained by what we tell the old people, the messages that they’re getting socially.”

Lagacé recently completed a study that aims to understand how seniors perceive new technologies. She spent time with seniors in four long-term care facilities in Ottawa, showing them pictures on her iPad and asking them whether they would be interested in devices like it.

“Ninety-five percent of those we interviewed automatically told us, ‘No, that’s not for me,’” she says. “But the minute we sat down with them, and the minute we showed them a little bit of the potential that these new technologies could bring to them, all of them wanted an iPad.”

With the right guidance, seniors can benefit from technology the same way younger generations have, but “major social changes” need to happen before we arrive at that point, she says.

“We have to stop thinking that they can’t learn.”

With the pace of modern technological development, there will likely always be a digital divide between generations. But intergenerational programs that bring the young and old together can go a long way in bridging that gap.

A new kind of student

Haik Kazarian, a U of O alumnus and owner of Students-for-Seniors, recalls being in class when he came up with the idea for a technology tutoring service for seniors. Launched in 2014 with the help of Anton Sestritsyn, Students-for-Seniors conducts in-home tutoring sessions on computers, smartphones, email, social media, and anything else involving modern technology.

“People don’t really take the time to teach their grandparents how to use technology,” he says.

“When they do, there’s a little bit of condescension that goes with it. Like it’s your grandma, so you talk to her like you would your grandma: ‘Grandma, I showed you this already!’

“And so they sometimes feel like they’re imposing,” he adds. “If you don’t visit your grandma very often, she doesn’t necessarily feel like asking you to show her something on the computer. So we kind of fill that gap.” 

Students-for-Seniors is a result-oriented business, meaning its tutors build their clients’ curriculum around what they want to learn, whether it’s doing photo editing, online shopping, or operating smartphones.

“If grandma wants to learn how to communicate with her grandson, that’s what we’re going to do,” says Kazarian.

One client who lives alone, and whose only child works out of town, wanted to learn how to use Skype. Kazarian was able to show him how to use the application, and the man now video chats with his daughter “religiously.”

Kazarian believes the biggest obstacle is that seniors are still afraid of technology. Whereas youth tend to learn new programs and devices almost intuitively, older adults generally prefer to be shown.

“It’s about empowering them to find answers themselves,” he says. “It’s good to encourage them to explore, but that takes time, it takes patience, and it takes actually caring.”

Once they get started, seniors can become quite active on the Internet and even on social media sites. Of Kazarian’s clients who are in their 90s, one in particular stands out. Since having joined Twitter, she has tweeted thousands of times and gained hundreds of followers. 

“She’s excited mostly about having friends and enemies on Twitter,” he says. “People who love what she posts, and people who don’t like what she posts, and retweeting this and retweeting that, and feeling as though she is actually contributing to the interwebs.”

Reta Bunbury is another one of Kazarian’s students. Since having started with Students-for-Seniors, she has learned to properly scan documents, to organize files into folders, and to use word processors, all of which have helped with her work as national administrator for the Inner Peace Movement of Canada. Tasks that once took her days to complete now only take her a few hours. 

“Until I started working with Haik, I thought I was just dumb about computers,” she recalls. “These past couple of weeks I’ve realized that it’s only because this mind isn’t trained to work with computers. So that’s all I need—someone to give me some direction.”

Direction. That’s often all it takes for seniors to become more comfortable using the technologies they feel unable to learn. In turn, helping older people increase their digital literacy undermines the stereotypes we have about them. 

“One of the positive sides of intergenerational projects is that they help counter the ageist discourse and demonstrate to elders that you know what? You can do it too,” says Lagacé.

The benefits of intergenerational learning

The sharing of skills or knowledge between generations, referred to as intergenerational learning, is a key part of growing up and growing old.

“I wouldn’t frame it in terms of benefits, I would say it’s a necessary part of being a normal human being,” says Stuart Hammond, an assistant professor at the U of O who studies children’s moral and social development.

“You have to learn intergenerationally.”

In the Internet age, the bidirectional nature of intergenerational learning has arguably become even more important. According to Hammond, as kids become much more savvy at technology than their parents, we can expect to see more of a “reverse order of intergenerational learning, with kids teaching their parents.”

This is good news, because every type of intergenerational relationship tends to benefit all those involved.

“Most empirical research in psychology and sociology has clearly demonstrated that intergenerational relationships, of quality of course, are like a bouclier (a shield),” Lagacé explains.

“They protect you from loneliness, from losing your self-esteem. You have a feeling of empowerment, a sense of identity, a sense of belonging.”

More specifically, technology can help seniors who are lonely or suffering, she says. With an iPad, for example, they can listen to old songs, look at pictures of places they grew up, or connect with their children or grandchildren.

“Let’s say you’re by yourself and you have multiple diseases, you’re in a home and you don’t like bingo. If you have an iPad, you don’t need to feel isolated anymore,” she says. “I’m not saying it would solve all the problems of old age, but it can certainly reduce substantially feelings of loneliness and feelings of low self-esteem.”

Something as simple as email is often enough. At Christmas, Bunbury was in Thunder Bay visiting her daughter, granddaughter and great-grandson. Upon her return to Ottawa, she received an email with a picture of her daughter and great-grandson.

“It was so nice,” she says. “It was just so much fun to see this picture of the two of them.”

On the other hand, being in contact with seniors can help young people gain a better understanding of older generations. Kazarian says that as a tutor he has learned a lot about the hobbies and interests of those he mentors. Often they resemble those of young people: watching how-to videos on YouTube, looking up new recipes, and exploring Google Earth. He’s also learned that many seniors tend to feel devalued and having access to technology can help.

Teaching an elder about technology can therefore really make a difference. It opens the doors for seniors to connect with the world, and for Millennials to connect with their elders.

If I were to take the time to show my grandfather how to use his laptop, I would be able to send him an email now and again. He could watch YouTube videos of the Lancaster Bombers he once flew in, or virtually visit the places he wants to see in Europe. He could even read this article online and leave a comment, if he wished. 

For all the things he has taught me over the years, hopefully I can soon say I at least taught him one.