Who says old people don’t use computers?

Jane Stafford (1899-1991)Last month’s AARP Bulletin had an ad for a computer “Designed For YOU, Not Your Grandchildren.”

It’s been “created with seniors in mind,” so there are “No confusing icons, tool bars, cascading windows, or computer jargon.”

My initial reaction (the expurgated version) is “Give me a break!” After a minute or two of reflection, it occurred to me that this is an ill-conceived solution to a problem which may not even exist.

I’ve been thinking a lot about use of computers, including the Internet, among people who are “old,” say aged 55 and up. Who in this group uses computers, who does not, and, if not, why not?

First some information about my experience. For one thing, the studies on computer use by age don’t strike me as all that helpful. For another, I think that I’m fairly representative of people 55 and up who use computers regularly.

My experience

I started using a computer on the job many years ago. Shortly after that I bought my first computer, monitor, keyboard, and printer which altogether cost a whooping $3,400.

I started with word-processing and learned new things as they came along, either with the aid of step-by-step user manuals (remember those?), mandatory training of the one-size-fits-all variety favored at my last job, and significant amounts of trial-and-error.

These days—like millions of other people—I mainly use my computer for such things as sending and receiving e-mail; online banking; shopping; reading news, online publications, and blogs; preparing speeches, including PowerPoint presentations; checking financial investments; organizing photos, using social media, ordering prescription items; and preparing and submitting my tax return using the terrific TurboTax. Of course, I also use it for my blog.  So, clearly, I belong in the group below.

Group 1: People aged 55 and up who use computers regularly

Research generally indicates that computer use is low in the 55 and up age group, although it’s a bit hard to sort out. One survey shows that the 60 or 65 and up group is the fastest growing age group on certain social media websites, but others say that doesn’t mean what you think it means. They say that it merely means that long-time computer users are getting older, so the fastest growing age group isn’t new users who are old; it’s old users getting older.

In much of the information, advice, and research on the topic, there’s an assumption that almost nobody aged 55 and up uses computers regularly. In other words, there is no Group 1, and, if there is, it’s very small. This is absurd.

It seems to me that there is a large, competent, and knowledgeable group of people who used computers on the job (if not before) for years and are still using them. And that this group will become larger and larger as more and more such people reach the age of 55.

Group 2: People aged 55 and up who don’t use computers

So, who’s in the second group? This is the more interesting question (and arguably even a problem) for a number of reasons. Group 2 includes those who haven’t used computers on the job and aren’t inclined to start now due to one or more of the following beliefs:

Bogus Belief 1. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, so don’t even try.

As I’ve discussed in  Three Common Myths of Aging, if you don’t think you can learn new things, you may stop even trying. The less hard you try, the less well you perform. The less well you perform, the less hard you try and so on and so on.

Young people are terrified of aging in part because of this belief (and in part because of the bogus belief that old people don’t have sex. Of course they do, but that’s a discussion for another time).

So the myth creates a fear of failure. Look at it this way: If someone offered to teach you something, never believing for a minute that you’d be any good at it, and you yourself were secretly afraid that you wouldn’t be any good at it, would you sign up for that humiliation?

Bogus Belief 2. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes the old dog just doesn’t get it. There’s nothing you can do about that.

Learning to use the computer takes time, and many of us in Group 1 have had years to learn  new things on the computer as they came alone. But if a person did not have an opportunity to use a computer on the job, he or she is faced with learning all this stuff at once. And it’s daunting, intimidating, nearly impossible. And—as if that were not challenging enough—a person aged 55 and up is likely to be taught by a younger person who’s impatient and critical and doesn’t hide it very well.

I read about one office where younger workers were asked to instruct older workers in certain computer use. It wasn’t going so well, until some supervisors started to notice that many of the older workers were coming in early or staying late or bolting their lunch at their desks, so they could have more time to practice using their computers.

They needed time alone at the computer without someone hovering and watching every hesitation and correcting every tiny error. The older workers were absolutely getting it, even enjoying it, but they needed to work on their own. Even on their own time. That should tell us something.

Bogus Belief 3. With age, inevitably, comes disability

Many people, including those who write ad copy for computers “created with seniors in mind” equate age and disability. It’s true that some disabilities, such as impaired vision, tend to increase with age. But then the issue is not age per se. The issue is reduced ability to see the keyboard and the screen. That’s a different matter altogether.

Again, my experience is relevant, particularly because I had a thorough eye exam just last week. At the end of the exam the doctor said,

There’s no evidence of glaucoma or retinopathy or macular degeneration. However, you’re probably going to need cataract surgery. In about ten years!

What it all means

Group 1 should become larger and larger and Group 2, correspondingly, smaller as more and more people use computers in school and on the job.

Photo by mbk

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Madeleine Kolb 08/04/2010, 10:06 pm

    Christopher, Thank you for this comment. You raise an extremely important point about the effect of myths of aging on people of every age.

    Teenagers and often their parents (who should know better) do roll dice with their health, based on erroneous ideas about genetics and longevity and other health-related matters. As you’ve observed, we need to provide information, but information alone doesn’t always lead to behaviour change.

  • Christopher 08/04/2010, 6:25 pm

    Madeleine…
    In regards to this question, “What do you think would be the most effective thing we could do to start addressing these age myths?”

    I feel strongly about this. We need to regard all myths or beliefs about again as b***sh**! All they do is perpetuate EVERYONE’s lack of empowerment, even people as young as teenagers. I’ve discussed with teenagers their health; they comment how their longevity is determined by their genes or how their grandfather smoked until he was dead at age 85. They completely take away any free will and roll the dice with their health.

    The truth is that the elderly are the cornerstones of older societies (thinking of tribes and native cultures). They are nurtured for their wisdom and they are expected to contribute in daily tasks no matter what their age!

    You are doing an amazing job addressing the myths! I think it is a very important part in society learning to embrace age.

  • Madeleine Kolb 03/10/2010, 9:17 am

    Kelly, Thank you sharing your experience. I guess that–for many people–an “online seniors magazine” is an oxymoron. A few days after I posted this, I came across the results of a survey on Internet use in AARP Bulletin Today (12/1/2009). Some of the results were:

    Of those aged 50-64: 22% don’t use the internet; 78% do.
    Of those aged 65 and over: 51% don’t use the internet; 49% do.
    Of those who do use the internet, 42% have been going online for more than 10 years.

    Although the sample size was small (1,013 people), the results confirm my conclusion that the number of people over 50 or so who use computers regularly should increase over time, and the number who don’t use them should, correspondingly, decrease.

  • Kelly 03/10/2010, 1:01 am

    Whenever I tell people that I work for an online seniors magazine they look at me funny. They don’t think seniors are actually online. But we know they are. Baby-boomers are starting to enter their seniors years and they’ve been using computers for years in their workplaces.

    @Justin I think that in order to address these age myths people need to be more aware of seniors and their contributions to society. I think in some cases people don’t even realize that a person is considered a senior. In their mind all seniors live in retirement homes.

  • Madeleine Kolb 12/14/2009, 8:45 am

    Anne, Thank you for your comment and for sharing your mother’s experience. I think younger and long-time computer users forget how much there is to learn. It takes time to become proficient, regardless of age. I hope your mother enjoys using her Mac.

  • Anne 12/11/2009, 4:04 pm

    I enjoyed your post Madeline. It is dangerous to make assumptions about ability. My own Mom used a computer for the very first time when she was 80. And while she’s not a prolific or confident user due to some short term memory problems, she uses it to keep in touch with friends and family by email and even manages to pay her bills and do her banking on line, which she absolutely loves.

    At 88 years of age she just bought a brand new Mac and is now very excited about expanding her computer prowess to include word processing to write letters, and record family history.

    Computers are a real boon to the elderly!

  • Madeleine Kolb 12/01/2009, 9:35 am

    @Belinda, Thank you for your comment. I definitely think that the age myths or stereotypes do morph into ageism as you suggest. I can’t say whether ageism is more tolerated than racism; both have clearly harmful effects when it comes to such things as getting a job in a dismal job market.

    @Krishna, I completely agree that “different people have different perspectives on the role of technology in life and it’s not so much dependent on age, as on various other factors….” A lot gets attributed to age, rather than simply to personal preference. Thank you also for your kind comment about the new format of my blog.

    @Arvind, Thank you for the comment. I don’t necessarily believe that we get smarter as we age, but I certainly don’t believe that aging is a very short, very rapid decline physically, mentally, and every other way.

  • Arvind Devalia 12/01/2009, 3:52 am

    Madeleine, a great post and one that resonates with me as I don’t believe in any age related myths.

    I choose to believe that we actually smarter and brighter as we get older!

    My father who passed away at the age of 80 almost exxactly 2 years ago was surfing the net and was quite accomplished with computers. He self-taught himself and also attended some classes intially.

    Sometimes he used to get frustrated with the technology but that had nothing to do with his age, just his level of knowledge and expertise at that time.

  • Krishna 12/01/2009, 3:22 am

    Well said Madeleine. My dad is 70+ and is quite comfortable with using a computer. Of course, unlike me, he is not interested in exploring every nifty feature of the machine and each program but wants to know the minimum to get things done. He is less patient with clutter and is generally minimalist in his approach to using a machine. I think different people have different perspectives on the role of technology in life and its not so much dependent on age, as on various other factors such as what you do and the role of technology vis a vis family and other aspects of your life.

    And yes, to echo Justin, what can we do to start addressing these myths?

    Also, love the new format of your blog, looks very nice…

  • Belinda Munoz 11/30/2009, 11:28 pm

    I really enjoyed this post, Madeleine. And as I was reading, I started to wonder about the common assumptions pertaining to computers and social media skills with regard to younger folks, that they are much more knowledgeable, comfortable, etc. And I have to confess that, for someone still many years away from the AARP age, I am nowhere near the expert level that many might assume about me due to my age.

    So, it seems to me age myths regarding the population of more advanced age sometimes morph into ageism which, to me, is not too different from any other kind of discriminatory “-isms”. But the lack of “age rights groups” (or whatever the appropriate term should be) leads me to wonder if ageism is more tolerated than, say, racism, and if so, why? Or, is ageism a problem that hasn’t yet hit the mainstream? And if not, why not and will it ever?

  • Madeleine Kolb 11/30/2009, 9:03 am

    Justin, What an excellent question! My blog is an individual effort to address some of the myths, but there is more I could do. One thing I’ve been thinking about is to start reviewing some excellent books which are relevant.

    I need to think about your question some more, because such myths harm us all in minor and major ways. I commit to following up on your question.

  • Justin Dixon 11/30/2009, 4:31 am

    What do you think would be the most effective thing we could do to start addressing these age myths?