June 29th, 2014
Why do older people make less use of computers and digital services than younger people? writes Ann Bajina.
Of course, there is the perception that they don’t want to simply because the digital world is new, but I don’t think that is always the reason. There are some real problems with access for older people.
Let’s look first at the positives, as an older person myself – recognising that I couldn’t do without my laptop now, having resisted buying one for a few years! It’s great to be able to stay in touch with relatives and friends without needing to know if they are available to take a phone call, and without the feeling that a letter needs to contain important news. I have had health problems and have needed to report in to my daughter every morning and evening just to reassure her that I am OK. By email it is easy – I don’t even need to know if she is up yet! And it’s free, whether we are countries apart or next door.
Then mobile phones – what would we do without them now? I take issue with those friends who say they only use them in emergencies and switch them off otherwise – so my question is: so it’s only an emergency you have that matters, not one someone else might have?
I understand they do not want to be fiddling with answering the phone in the middle of doing something else, and that’s if they can actually find it – which leads to one of the difficulties for older people – hearing it ring in the first place! I think many older people find mobile phones intrusive, not helped by (mostly) younger people chatting at full volume on trains and buses! I haven’t any experience yet with smart phones, for reasons I will describe shortly.
Other major positives for older people include remotely controlled burglar alarm systems, alarm systems on a phone to alert someone of health issues, and even for some people, games!
However, there are problems which get worse the older you get. Here are my main gripes.
Touch screens are a nice idea but almost impossible to use if you have shaky hands, and most of us do eventually.
Small devices are a problem as well, as we often can’t read the screens. Even this Notebook computer I am using is difficult. It is rarely intuitive finding out how to increase the text size, and then there’s no room on the screen without lots of scrolling. I’ve just found how to do it for this article!
Passwords and PIN numbers – another problem. We’re told not to write them down but to have different ones for each application. I couldn’t have remembered them if I’d obeyed this rule years ago, now it is impossible. Quite apart from issues such as failing memory, we now have so many.
Then there are constantly changing computer operating systems. I read a letter in the Saga magazine just this morning pleading for fewer of these. It nearly always depends on having some younger techie to explain and implement changes, and not all of us have access to such people. Even after a full career in IT I am seriously out of date and have no confidence in being able to deal with this problem. Associated with this is the cost of getting new hardware and software – many older people can’t afford to change even if they wanted to.
Anti-virus systems are an even more complicated example of the above. And a particular irritation is being offered extra features on a trial basis and then not being able to say you don’t want them.
Finally, spam is a nuisance for everyone, but it is counter-intuitive to expect older people to avoid putting details say of their email address on a form when asked to do so. We’re much less likely to realise when this is risky. This leads to the issue of scare stories and hoaxes – I always advise my friends to check with Snopes.com before opening anything they don’t recognise, and never to download anything they don’t know about – but they don’t know about software upgrades they need either!
In conclusion, there’s quite a lot of education needed for my generation who mostly had almost no experience of computers in their working lives. But they are not going to do it – they don’t see why they should and in any case, it just makes them recognise how little they know and how much can go wrong! And cost again is a factor.
So, what do we need? Fewer changes; cheaper support networks; clearer instructions on how to increase volume and text size and swap between mouse and touch screen systems; and older people serving in computer shops! And how about bringing back paper copies of manuals– if you don’t know how to use your computer, how do you find the help system?
NOTE: Ann Bajina worked for more than 50 years in IT, and is now gratefully retired.