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Enough: Newspapers are fueling terror among the elderly and computers

Newspaper writers are bored but assigned to the age beat. How lucky. We have yet another entry in the annals of 'why seniors hate computers news' library. This one from the Boston Globe searches for a way to write condescendingly about seniors and their fear and loathing when it comes to using a computer. We're so lucky -- a Harvard professor has offered their 'insight' about the acceleration of the 'pace of change' and the Cambridge Health Alliance, offering insight on how it takes longer to learn new things.  Gee, was this a study? Oops, no, just a few anecdotes, vastly enhanced by the entertaining comments from seniors who have been using computers for years.  Maybe that's how they read the Globe -- which would be a revenue-free access method.

Not the first and not the last.  And the NY Times did its part in October, offering up a headline to remember -- 'Helping Grandpa Get His Tech On' -- which did its part to drive the bar lower on what we should hope for with seniors and the Internet. And blah, blah, blah, lots of racket about fear of computers and wow, how seniors overcame it. You would think we were talking about the Loch Ness Monster.  Let's call this what it is. Reporters FEAR new technology more than disease. And they fear aging more than they fear new technology.  Put it together, and you have reporters that hate new technology, fear aging, and whose papers are catering to what they are sure is the demographic of the reader -- a computer-fearing baby boomer with a computer-phobic older family member. So readers will read articles that fuel that fire.  But what about the facts?

Seniors know they need access to the world. Enjoy reading the comments from seniors in the Globe article (the best part). And that's why libraries, senior centers, and SeniorNet have credibility as trainers and guides to using computers that seniors need -- in fact, who isn't plagued by new tech? That's why Cisco just released TheValet to simplify wireless access in the home -- and not just for seniors.

So let's get a few facts straight. Thirty-eight percent of those age 65+ are online, according to Pew Research. 26% have access to broadband, maybe they need it, these days, maybe they don't. In the 70-75 age range, Pew says we're up to 45% online.  In the 76+ age range, from 17% to 27% since 2005.  Gee, might that be a trend? Of those that are online, according to Nielsen Wire, we're talking about e-mail, maps, checking the weather, paying bills, etc.  Just what you, the Times reader, the Boston Globe writer, and everyone else is doing, I bet.

So let's rest on this fear-and-loathing-in-computerland.  Let's write more about how cybererseniors get in touch with their pals.

And this just in -- a new organization (GOAL - Get Older Adults Online) sponsored by Verizon, Microsoft, AT&T, AARP, Comcast, Facebook (!!!), AT&T, T-Mobile and the FCC, among others, launched on Tuesday.




Great commentary on this Laurie! When I read Walt Mossberg's April 2nd column about the just released IPAD I thought immediately of my 81 year old mother. Next thing I knew there was an email from her inquiring if I thought the IPAD would meet her needs. (Which it would - perfectly!) I had to smile and reply, "Have you been reading Mossberg again?" Thanks for helping to bust the myth!

Maybe she shouldn't get one just yet.  Mossberg's Q&A on the limitations is one thing -- and the comments are something else.


Right on. Seniors are also afraid of viruses and hackers.
I suspect that the media has overblown this as well.
Like being afraid of muggers. You take reasonable precautions and get off the couch!

Every month since the launch of the MyGait computer on July 1st, I listen to hundreds of the internet's newest users, telling me their relevatory experiences and how their lives are changed. Thousands of MyGait users that used to have fear..or..never thought they could possibly use one...or were talked "down" to by their technologically superior electronics salesmen or worse yet,their kids,..are now gleefully doing whatever they want to do on their computers..knowing that there is no need to fear when you have a constant companion (service that's friendly and encourages you to call) and an interface that won't leave you in the Twilight Zone.
Products that are simple to use, work well, and deliver what they promise will nearly always succeed..with or without press approval, who really have never been a part of a focus group of seniors, or watched them interact with a product, or moreover, used.. unless the product was given to them for a review sample.
BTW..for those that do have a little "High Anxiety" and won't make the full leap to computers...there's Celery and Presto that do quite well at filling that gap.
Bud Myers
Director,AgeTek Alliance

It is incorrect to create stereotypes among seniors. Computer use is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

Yes, it is completely correct to say that there are many, many seniors (including those in their 80's) who are completely comfortable with computers -- they love browsing, are prolific with email, comfortable using Word and Excel, and do their banking, stocks and shopping online. Heck, in our focus groups and surveys, we even found some notable 80-year olds who could write lengthy Java programs and HTML.

Likewise, there are many, many seniors (including those in their 70's) who are intimidated by computers. In our focus groups and surveys, we found a large number of seniors who felt inadequate using computers, or were disinterested in using them. Many seniors have computers gathering dust somewhere in their dens, but turn them on for a day only when their son/daughter nags them about why they haven't used their Christmas gift. Using computers is simply not interesting to them.

And then there are those seniors who are in the middle -- they are comfortable with some basic capabilities of computers (email, etc.), but do not care for the other features.

It is quite obvious that the trend is clearly toward an increasing percentage of seniors becoming comfortable with computers with every passing year.

From a business perspective, however, the companies that will do well are those that understand the segmentation that exists among seniors and market to that segmentation, rather than blindly lumping all seniors into a "computer ignorant" bucket or conversely into a "computer savvy" one.

Some are early adopters and some are not. I don't think we need to ignore the lower rate of computer/Internet adoption by elders; we need to understand it so we can move forward. The recent FCC study went a long way towards developing our understanding.

One issue that doesn't get enough play, in my opinion, is the design of hardware and software. All potential users can be put off by overly complex interfaces, troublesome controls, and confusing documentation. And it's important to remember that many elders have significant functional limitations to vision, hearing, cognition, dexterity, etc. Why not improve the designs with them in mind; ease of use will usually improve for everyone.

David Pogue's opening line -- that 25% of routers are returned to the store because they are too complicated to set up -- reinforces your point.  But then he goes further to critique The Valet router from Cisco and how it missed the mark its goal of being as simple to use as the Flip camera -- because you still "encounter too many pawprints from Cisco’s entrenched engineers." 


Some really good points here. I have the pleasure of working with seniors and their computing needs on a daily basis and the differences in abilities, interests, reasons for having a computer are all over the place. We are constantly improving the 'out of box' experience for our customers and I can relate the article about the router from Cisco. Setting up most new electronic devices can be somewhat stressful if you are a newbie. I have noticed that some seniors enjoy reading the simple instructions, while others enjoy calling in for the live voice. One thing remains consistent with seniors using computers and that is the 'WOW' experience they have when they see the pictures, movies, music, games, and everything online that most of us think of as just normal computing.

Ms. Orlov, you've got it again in the second half of the second paragraph. What we're reading are the displaced fears of reporters who have spent their entire careers in traditional (especially newspaper) media and are becoming (for good or ill) obsolescent by the minute. ESPECIALLY at the Boston Globe (which is a hairsbreadth from shuttering) and at the NYTimes (which will shut the Globe eventually.) Also a 'fear and loathing' story is a lot 'sexier' than something positive. (Oh, for the days of 'Headless Body in Topless Bar'!) But seriously, those of us in marketing and PR in aging tech have had to deal with this journo mentality for the past five years. (And here we were thinking it was getting better...sigh.)

Thank you, Laurie, for posting these thoughts. It is so frustrating to work with seniors and technology, which I do on occasion, and have them so worried about getting started, doing something wrong, and maybe ending up somewhere they shouldn't be. One big issue for me, however, is that they are so busy with such full lives. Often they "get it" when I demo a lesson but then without practice they forget (just as I do). It reminds me a bit of when I never got around to practicing the piano because I was so busy with athletics. When they do get a bit of practice ... power users.


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