Adopting technology for older generations

My mother is one of the greatest influences in my life. She has taught me many things throughout the years and I still look to her for guidance. However, there is one area where she struggles – technology. She usually relies on me for guidance when it comes to that.

As we age, we gain insight and wisdom through life experiences that allow us to mentor and influence the younger generations. One exception to this rule can be technology. As I observe my own family, I notice that my children are very early adopters of technology and are eager to learn and experiment. Like my family, you may have noticed that older generations are sometimes amazed by the ability of young children to utilize and adapt to new technology. I have seen firsthand, grandparents being schooled on how to use the computer or a smart phone by their grandchildren. Why is this, and what can be done to inspire, encourage and teach older generations to use technology?

This really isn’t a new phenomenon; think about the history of farming. In the early days, farming was very primitive and laborious, requiring animals to pull plows and manually harvest crops. As we progressed, electricity entered the picture along with the internal combustion engine which made way for tractors on the farm. Those generations that were used to doing things the manual way, were very apprehensive and sometimes slow to adopt this new technology. Why would they want to change the way they had been doing things for the last 40 years?

Duane Noland, the president and CEO of the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives who also assists on the family farm, told me of a time when tractors and equipment were all manual pull levers, twist knobs, and very laborious to operate. Then along came the hydraulic systems that replaced a lot of the manual labor associated with operating tractors and implements. He explained to me that the older generation of farmers at that time had a hard time adopting this technology because it was unfamiliar, and they didn’t fully understand how it worked. Today we consider hydraulics a simple yet very effective technology and to some degree allows farmers to work well into their 80s.

Fast forward to today where all the mechanics of a tractor can be functioning properly, but the farmer is unable to plant the crop because the computer system in the tractor is down. I can only imagine the frustration of someone who doesn’t understand the technology and must rely on someone else to get up and running again.

Fewer senior adults are smartphone owners. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, more than half of all Americans now have a smartphone, but among those 65 and older, adoption levels sit at just 18 percent. Additionally, smartphone ownership among that population has risen modestly in recent years, from 11 percent in April 2011. A significant majority of older adults (77 percent) do have a cell phone, but they tend to be more basic devices.

Learning to use new technology is difficult for a significant majority of older adults. They say they need assistance when it comes to using new digital devices. Just 18 percent feel comfortable learning to use a new device, such as a smartphone or tablet on their own, while 77 percent indicate they would need someone to help walk them through the process. And among seniors who go online, but do not currently use social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, 56 percent would need assistance if they wanted to use these sites to connect with friends or family members.

When it comes to helping my mother learn new technology, it needs to be personal and intentional. I cannot expect her to learn it on her own because she needs explanation as to why something works the way it does and why it would be beneficial. Unlike the curious minds of children who aren’t afraid to click buttons and change settings, older generations are fearful of “messing something up” even though that’s hard to do. They don’t understand that whatever is done can usually be easily undone. If we want our parents and grandparents to adopt new technology and reap the benefits, we need to be willing to come alongside them and show them how it works.