Seniors and the Internet


This week’s Senior Scene is going to be a risk taker. I’m going to head into territory covered with potential clichés like a mine field, a topic so overplayed that it has become the “Pachelbel’s Cannon” of discussions about aging: using the Internet.

There are actually two aspects to a discussion about seniors using the Internet, and only one of them ever gets talked about. The one we all know well is obvious: how can seniors who aren’t familiar with computers gain literacy? Of course, plenty of elders know quite a bit about technology — I’ve occasionally been in the awkward position of offering my “computer help” to an older person who expected me to type prompts into a command line rather than try plugging in the monitor as I usually do. But computer literacy is like a language, and there are a number of seniors who want to learn it and are struggling. This question is important, and in saying it’s overplayed I don’t mean to suggest that seniors learning about computers are somehow wasting their time. The problem is that people try to answer this question without first asking a more fundamental one. What is it about the Internet and computers that makes it so vital for seniors to learn about them?

If you ask an English speaker whether English is useful, he’ll answer “of course!” Take him to France and his tune may change. In the same way, if you ask your teenage grandson whether Facebook is useful, he will probably say yes. For that reason, I get a lot of questions from seniors at the Chicago Hyde Park Village drop-in and in my other work about “getting on Facebook.” In fact, research company Forrester did a study showing that about half of seniors who are online use Facebook. The thing is, just as many seniors ask me about getting off social networks as ask me about getting on them.

Parts of our culture seem to have the absurd belief that online social media, which has only really existed in recent years, has somehow become absolutely necessary during that time. A senior who doesn’t want to have an online presence will be accused by some of isolating him or herself. Social media fills a need which exists for some people, and especially people in my generation right now. We want to share things broadly and market ourselves. I’ve found overwhelmingly that what seniors who start a Facebook account want is to stay in touch with family and very close friends. When they start being assaulted by friend requests from people they hardly know, sometimes seniors feel threatened. A Reuters report on a computer literacy course in New York libraries, published in August 2012, ended up quoting seniors saying just about the same thing I’ve always heard — I don’t want to friend him, he’s distant family, but my grandson, he’s interesting.

Facebook is only one example of the communication or miscommunication that happens surrounding senior computer literacy. If you’re working with a senior on getting online, or if you’re a senior who wants to be online, don’t forget that everyone’s interests are different. For some people, being able to have a Skype video call with grandchildren in college is interesting, and for others, a blog on a favorite topic is all that’s really needed. Not everyone should have a Twitter account; people have gotten by without them for generations, and there are still plenty of other ways to make your mark.

If you have questions or comments related to aging and life as a senior or this column, call Andrew’s Senior Scene Hotline at 508-397-0321.