Computers and Seniors: A Complex But Rewarding Combination
by Marjorie Dorfman

To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer. ~ Paul Ehrlich

There is an old saying about teaching old dogs new tricks, but it is fallacious. A dead dog can't learn many new tricks, but everyone else is a possibility as long as they find themselves on the upper side of the sod.

According to recent research conducted at the University of Alberta, the main obstacle between mastery of the computer within the senior population is a lack of confidence. Older adults are also concerned about how memory issues may impact their performance.

In the words of Dr. Patricia Boechler from the University of Alberta: “This lack of confidence is a major factor in older adults' ability to become proficient with computer technology, which unfortunately results in less computer use.”

For many older citizens, learning technology is intimidating and the key to effective instruction is to patiently break down the information into smaller, easy to digest chunks.

Technology is slowly creeping into the existence of the senior population. The need to keep in touch with family and friends makes email a pleasant avenue, and the Internet is alive with important health news and information particular to the aging segment of society.

A recent innovative research study concerning the performance of 40 older adults when being tested on the computer and Internet highlighted some of the obstacles older adults experience such as a significant decrease in vision and hearing as well as motor skills which can be impaired by arthritis.

Researchers have indicated that seniors use email within a restricted circle of two different social groups: relatives and close friends. There are three prototypes of email managers designed specifically for this population: SeniorMail, which is a revamping of Outlook Express; Simple Mail, a simulated email system with a user interface that has only five functions, and Cybrarian, based on even fewer functions and an increase in the size of the features.

Once again according to Dr. Boechler: “Often a large challenge for older adults when using the computer is navigating the mouse and keyboard, which is commonly due to a health problem like arthritis.”

The study recommended several courses of action to help even the playing field such as: increasing font sizes to accommodate vision problems, ensuring that verbal instructions are delivered at an appropriate volume and demonstrating the tasks ahead of time to reduce anxiety.

It is said that patience is a virtue and whether one would argue this point or no, it is a vitally important element in the instruction of senor citizens who learn at their own pace and whose memories and retention skills aren't what they used to be. They also may become easily frustrated and anyone in an instructor capacity must be prepared for constant repetition.

As a rule of thumb, teach the basics first. Older citizens as well as anyone new to a computer can benefit from instructions about hardware, the power buttons and basic external features, such as where to plug in the monitor and mouse.

If you are teaching an older person about the computer, find out before you begin exactly what they want to use the computer for and begin instruction focused on that aspect. Work with the biggest goal in mind first, which will to insure interest. If surfing the Internet is a primary goal, instruct on logging in and how to conduct web searches. Conversely, if the allure is address or information storage, start with how to manage documents and files.

Technology (and e-mail particularly) is a way to connect with modern society and crack the isolation felt by many senior citizens who live far away from their families and friends.

Researchers are realizing that the size of the elements of the computer interface is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making it easier for older citizens to remember and perform task in an email program. The impetus for learning is psychological and it stems from a need to be independent and to be “like other people” when it comes to functions like sending an email.

Patience, understanding and realizing that all of us will be at that age at some time in our lives can make teaching an older person how to use the computer an easier endeavor. You might find the experience surprising, as you never know what you can learn from working with an older person who has lived and experienced much more than you.

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