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Opinion: Nurture seniors’ tech skills for everyone’s gain

 With proper training and support, many more seniors can use technology to add purpose and dignity to their lives.

Many fear our ageing population will place intergenerational stress on the economy. I see a more positive scenario, where a growing cohort of motivated senior citizens remain valued and productive members of society through their creative use of digital technologies. Innovation means more than new widgets. Social innovation through existing devices and applications can be important in solving the critical demographic problems we now face in our health and welfare systems.

Remaining productive and socially connected as we age can be a major contribution to our health and wellbeing. However, this is not always easy for many senior citizens. Isolation, either at home or in residential care, can increase as people get older and this can reduce their quality of life in many ways. While it’s great to be involved and meet up in person, this is often no longer possible. For most young people, being physically isolated is not such an issue as they now do most things online anywhere and anytime. But few elderly citizens have access to the appropriate technologies or have the relevant skills to do this. Some have physical, mental or conceptual challenges to overcome.

Helen Hasan

Helen Hasan

For three years, I have conducted action research on the benefits of providing seniors with the capability to use a range of digital technologies on the internet. While not the solution for everyone, social use of computers and the internet can help overcome the isolation of the elderly, reconnecting them to family, friends and community to improve their wellbeing and enabling them to remain productive members of society.

My research shows that even the simple mastery of everyday computer applications can contribute to a senior’s social and emotional wellbeing in four well-established domains. These are:

  1. Social participation and involvement: connecting via email and Skype; exchanging family pictures and videos; joining online communities; and using social media.
  2. Meaningful occupation of time: enrolling in an online course (MOOC); volunteering or paid work, such as editing or mentoring; creating a family tree; writing and publishing a blog or book; or simply surfing the ‘net.
  3. Control over daily life: online banking; shopping and booking online; interacting with tradespeople; using mygov, myagedcare and similar online facilities.
  4. Dignity: keeping up to date with news, movies, fashion; having a say on Twitter or on Facebook.

My research shows there are four basic services needed to get seniors started with computers, whether they are in care or at home.

  • Get the right technology: Many older people already have a computer but need help setting it up and learning to use it. If they don’t have a computer that is suitable for them, they may need some advice on what to get within their budget. If money is a problem, there are free, reconditioned computers available.
  • Get connected to the internet: This is where most seniors need advice. Some aged-care facilities have wifi but not enough. There are different home options that vary in price and suitability.
  • Getting some introductory lessons and ongoing help as needed: It is essential for seniors to learn on the device they will continue to use. Lessons need to be individualised for the learner’s capability, needs and interest. Seniors also need some way to get appropriate ongoing help when they get stuck. There could be commercial services for those who can afford it or a set of volunteers for those who can’t. These helpers would need to understand the elderly as well as having in-depth knowledge of computing.
  • Setting up online communities: Perhaps with a face-to-face element, so the isolated elderly can connect to get help, share experiences and engage in a community for all sorts of reasons.

In summary, there is an ageist view that learning to use computers is beyond older people. We have plenty of examples where this is not the case. Maintaining an intellectually challenging and contemplative mindset, and identifying activities that will be meaningful and therefore personally satisfying, leads to productive ageing that is in the best interests of both society and the individual.

Helen Hasan is associate professor in information systems, Faculty of Business, at the University of Wollongong. For more details on this research, access the full paper here.

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