“Computers should be an ideal tool for older people, but they’re afraid, and it’s a hard barrier to overcome. Computers can open the world to disabled people. Are you lonely? Play a game, get angry with your computer for winning!” -Sarah
Sarah (alias), age 87, is not afraid of computers. In fact, she could give many of us a run for our money when it comes to online chats, music downloading and understanding fear of technology. But this doesn’t mean she sees everything the same way that younger generations do.
Sonia (alias), age 90, types up documents in Word for dozens of people in her senior citizen community. She learned to touch type on a typewriter sometime in the 1930s, so why should computers be any different?
Young people tend to look at the older generation as second class citizens when it comes to technology. This is apparent from jokes we see online every day, and it stems, among other things, from the real need to help our parents and grandparents cope with the huge technological advances of the last ten years or so. But what is it like for them? Are they really making use of everything technology has to offer, or are they merely standing at the sidelines of this revolution? Are they also striving to own the latest iPhone? Or maybe they don’t even know what smartphones are?
Thinking I knew everything there is to know about people’s relationship with technology, I met with these two women, one of whom is my grandmother, and tried to find out first hand what’s technology really like if you’re 90 years old. I was in for the ride of a lifetime.
Without Internet, My Great-Grandson Wouldn’t Even Know Me
I met my grandmother, Sonia in her apartment. Her bedroom features a modern workstation, complete with a PC desktop, a 15-inch monitor, a webcam, and even an all-in-one HP printer. She uses her computer every day to type up memories and stories, and even holds a weekly music class where she reads out interesting facts from Wikipedia about various composers. Right from the beginning, my grandmother shows me that there’s more than one way to use computers.
“I open my email [Internet Explorer, Y.L.], and I see a line where I search what I’m looking for. I write Schubert, for example, and I find the whole story about him. I don’t want to listen to music, I have CDs for that. I only read. But there’s too much text, I need to find only the facts that would interest the people in my class, so I read, I write down in a notebook all the important things, and then I type it in and print it.”
“You write it down by hand?” I’m amazed. Not just because she doesn’t use copy and paste, but because it highlights for me how lazy my own generation has become; the mere idea of copying something by hand in this way seems like an outrageous amount of work. And yet Sonia does this happily on a weekly basis.
“It’s a lot of work!” she says “And I know it’s not up to date. But I don’t know how else to do it. I tried several times to print all of it, but it prints so many pages.” When I ask her about copying and pasting, she explains that someone’s tried to teach her how to do it, but it didn’t work. “I’ll tell you why, it’s because you need to highlight for that, right? I’m not sure why, but I’m worried I’ll erase something.” She laughs.
“When we lived in Switzerland, there was no phone. We didn’t talk to our parents for 3.5 years! We never heard their voice.” –Sonia
Sonia checks her email every day. Her friends know she loves animals, so she gets animal pictures, videos and presentations in abundance. She types up and prints out memories and stories for friends who don’t even own a computer and uses Skype to talk to her grandson and great-grandsons in Australia.
“I don’t know my great-grandsons,” She tells me, “but I can see them growing up. It’s incredible. And they know me, they can see me on Skype, otherwise they wouldn’t know who I was. They even call me grandma” Her great-grandson, who’s 6 years old, has barely ever met Sonia in person, but thanks to Skype, he draws pictures of his family including her, and even sends her these drawings via email.
In the times before Internet, people wrote letters. Real ones, on paper, with stamps. The letters would travel by boat, and reach their destination in several days, sometimes several weeks. “We wrote a pile of letters.” She tells me of a period in the 1940s when she and her husband lived in Geneva. “We wanted our parents to know everything about our lives, it was the only way to communicate. We wrote very long letters. Today you don’t go into details as we used to. I don’t think you’d want to tell me in an email about every little thing you did today.”
“Of course it’s better!” she answers, when I ask her about Internet communication vs. the old times. “These days, when I want to talk to my grandson, I call him on the phone and he calls me back on Skype. I really enjoy it.”
Can you imagine not hearing your parents’ voice for three and a half years? How about giving birth to your firstborn, with your parents barely knowing you were pregnant? “When our first son was born we sent a telegram,” She tells me of the birth of my father, in the year 1948. “Every word cost money so we tried to use as little as possible. We wrote ‘Sonia and her son Daniel are healthy’. They didn’t know I gave birth, they didn’t know anything! Who is Daniel? What are we talking about? It was a real joke.”
In an age when we take our phones and computers everywhere, when our phones are in fact our computers, this form of communication is almost impossible to fathom. How often do you speak to your family and friends when you’re away from home? Every day? Every couple of days? I bet the least you do is check for updates on Facebook or Twitter.
“I don’t know anything about it,” Sonia tells me when I ask her about Facebook “I’ve never started with it, and I have no idea what it is. I’ve heard that you put your details on Facebook, and people answer and you communicate. I don’t know anything else.”
“People don’t communicate. They learned to communicate using smartphones, or using websites like Facebook, and they can’t sit and talk any more. I think this is the most painful aspect of the entire technological advance.” –Sonia
Another piece of technology we take for granted, and Sonia never will, is the smartphone. “I never had one and I don’t want one.” She tells me. But don’t think for a minute that this is due to some general fear of cell phones. Sonia owns a rather new Nokia C2 device, and doesn’t leave the house without it. “I think smartphones had a bigger effect on communication than the plain cell phone. Even when cell phones were already around, before smartphones, there wasn’t this need to communicate [through smartphones Y.L.] all the time, everywhere. I’m very worried about the disconnection from people.”
Like many others, she thinks children spend too much time in front of the TV, computer and smartphones, but what really worries her is the effect this could have, or already has, on our interpersonal communication abilities. “When my children were young,” She tells me, “everyone wanted Reebok shoes and jeans, that’s what they thought about. Today it’s devices. Had it not come in place of personal relationships, it could have been great.”
“I saw something on TV where 10 people sit around a table, each with their own device, and a little boy is trying to tell his mother something. Preoccupied with her phone, she tells him, ‘can’t you see I’m busy?’ This is our major loss, with all this new technology”.
When You Were Very Young, There Was Something Called ICQ
At 90 years of age, Sonia uses technology better than most of the residents in her community, and after talking to her, this was about the level I expected when I met Sarah in her apartment two floors below. What I discovered left me dumbstruck.
Before I even get the chance to start asking my questions, Sarah already has me transfixed on stories of ICQ, online friends and meetings abroad. In the 13 years she’s been using computers, Sarah has met with two people in Germany, a woman in Spain, two people in Hungary, and one person in England. And I thought I was brave for meeting my husband online.
“In Hungary, I met two people, with one of which I had a very moving experience.” She starts off her amazing tale. “We decided to meet in my hotel on Sunday morning at 10AM. He was very cautious and said he only had time till 12PM. It was before we had digital cameras, and it didn’t occur to me to ask for a picture.” At this point, I’m already at the edge of my seat, as she continues. “In comes this man, tall, with a huge beard. I was amazed. We sat together, and there was an instant click. 12PM came and went, and suddenly he had lots of time. He asked me if I had any plans, and I said I wanted to go to the cemetery where my mother is buried, but I was concerned that I won’t find the grave again. It has happened to me before. This man says to me, if you are willing to wait until Tuesday, I will ask to be late for work on Tuesday morning, and I will take you to the cemetery.”
And on Tuesday he came. The man made his way through the rundown graves, through the thorns and untended plants, and he found the grave. “We sat there, and I was very cold. I told him ‘I’m cold, hug me’. And he hugged me.” Several years later, Sarah received a message from the man’s wife, telling her he’s passed away, but she remains to this day with this enchanting memory of a man she met, of all places, on ICQ. But it doesn’t end here.
Sarah goes on to tell me about her closest online friend, a man 45 years her junior who lives in India. “He kept telling me, you travel around so much, why don’t you come to India? I told him an old woman has nothing to do in India, BUT, if he can make it to Europe, I’ll meet him there. One day he told me his work was sending him to Brighton. So on to Brighton!”
This was only 8 years ago. Sarah was already living in her current residence, and as you can imagine, not many could understand her position. “Everyone in this house thought I was off my rocker. Going to Brighton for 3 days to meet a stranger! I told them, he’s not a stranger, we’ve known each other for two years!” And so, at nearly 80 years of age, Sarah went to Brighton, something most of us would never dream of doing. “I spoke English in a Hungarian accent, he spoke in a Hindi accent, and we understood each other perfectly. We laughed a lot, it was a blast.”
“On the first lesson he told us, ‘don’t be afraid, you can’t break the computer, you don’t know how to’. This gave me confidence.” –Sarah
“One day a good friend came to me and said, do you have an extra $1000? I asked why. Let’s buy a computer! She says. What for, I asked her? She says, I don’t know, but my grandchildren have one, and it’s fun.” This is how it all started for Sarah 13 years ago, and she hasn’t looked back since. She’s not afraid of her computer, not one bit. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t have her share of trouble.
“At first, every little thing paralyses you. Things just don’t work! One time there was this ad, a very nice monkey asked me to be his buddy. I liked him, and I agreed. From that moment on, I couldn’t get rid of him. No matter what I opened, my buddy appeared! And when that happens to someone, it’s very confusing.” She’s laughing as she tells me this, so it seems that her malware buddy did not inflict any serious damage, in case you were worried.
Today Sarah doesn’t chat anymore. And she too doesn’t use Facebook. “I don’t see the magic in it. I have an account, I uploaded a picture, people talk to me but I forget to check it. There’s no magic in it.” She repeats, “It’s wide open, everything is out there.”
After this dazzling opening, I go back to basics and try to find out what Sarah does on her computer on a daily basis. I discover that aside from sending and receiving emails, playing around with PowerPoint and some games, Sarah also bought a large 19-inch monitor to watch videos on YouTube. She also listens to music on her computer, which makes you wonder where that music comes from. “Do you download your music?” I ask her, “Yes! I download a lot.” She says. Curious, I inquire where she downloads her music from, and the answer has my jaw nearly hitting for floor, “There’s a program that turns music from YouTube into….” She cuts off seeing my expression, “What, you didn’t know?”
At this point, I can’t help it, and tell Sarah her abilities far surpass anything I’ve ever expected. I thought my grandmother was a computer whiz, and here is this 87-years-old woman, doing things my friends probably don’t know how to do. “I don’t really know anything”, she confides. “I can’t touch type. I once bought a program that was supposed to teach me how to touch type, and it was very good, but it was BORING. After the fourth lesson I was sick of it completely. I type very slowly, but I make do”.
“I don’t write letters any more. My family remained in Hungary I used to write letters to everyone — real letters with stamps and envelopes. I don’t do that anymore, it’s all emails.” –Sarah
Like Sonia, Sarah has relatives abroad which she communicates with every day. “Communication with people abroad is much better today [than it used to be]”, she tells me. “I have relatives in Hungary, we write each other every single say, several times a day. We have nothing to write about, but we still communicate. For example, I know it’s snowing there today and that it was very cold last night and they went out to see the first Christmas lights. And I told them what I did today — three lines, no more, but the connection is immediate, it’s simple, it’s easy. When I was writing real letters it was once every 6 weeks or so, and we wrote very long letters, with all the stories.”
It’s not all emails, though. Sarah uses Skype, and used to hold regular video chats on Yahoo! Messenger back in the day. She even shops online, although like many of us, she’s wary about buying things without trying them first. “I need to try things for myself. If, for example, I want to buy a new chair, I’ll look online, but I want to sit on it before buying!”
There are certain things she does buy online, though. “I do buy things like play tickets. Getting tickets for a play in another country a month before travelling — this is something we couldn’t do before. Sometimes there are surprises, though. It’s not dishonesty, necessarily, but when I went to Brighton I booked a hotel online. I saw pictures of the hotel, a description of the room — it said everything, except that the room is in the basement. The landlady said ‘it’s not a basement, dear, it’s ground floor’, but you had to go down some steps to get into the room. That wasn’t written!”
This seems like a good time to ask about Google. Naturally, as this stage, I very much assume Sarah knows something about Google, but she manages to surprise me yet again with the extent of her knowledge. “Ah, Google! You can’t do anything without Google, Google knows all! You know how many times I listen to a lecture, and come home later to search for something I heard about? Or let’s say there’s an argument — no need to argue, Google knows!”
“I think people my age have become slaves to cell phones. It affects them badly. They become dependent on calls, and young people never ask them if it’s a good time or not.” –Sarah
At this point, I veer away from computers and venture to the subject of cell phones. After everything I’ve learned about Sarah in the past hour, I’m not entirely sure what to expect. I mean, what would you expect at this point?
“I went into an Apple store, found a nice lady, and asked her if she has enough patience to educate a grandma about what a tablet is and what it can do. She did, and I understood. I also understood that it’s very expensive. I came home and started thinking, do I really need it? I don’t. It’s very nice, but I don’t need it.
In fact, when it comes to cell phones, Sarah doesn’t need much of anything. She owns a simple Samsung C450 device, which she has to go look for when I ask to see it. The phone is switched off, and she gives out the number to absolutely no one. “I don’t need people calling me. I’m not that important that people have to call in the middle of the day. They can call me at home and leave a message.” She also has pretty decisive views regarding the way others use their cell phone. “I view it in a somewhat cynical eye when people jump up in the middle [of a lecture] and run out to answer their phone. I ask them afterwards, ‘what happened?’ ‘My son called,’ they say. ‘Where is your son?’ I ask them, ‘Oh, he lives close by.’ Come on, he’s right here! Can’t he call in an hour? I think people my age have become slaves to cell phones. It affects them badly. They become dependent on calls, and young people never ask them if it’s a good time or not.”
Many of us have grandparents or even older parents who need help with technology, but it’s not always easy to provide that help. When I ask her about the reasons behind the fear and general difficulty with technology, she’s ready with yet another insightful answer; “I started with Windows [Microsoft Word. Y.L.] 13 years ago, we didn’t really have Internet. We didn’t start using the Internet for months. Today when people start, they start with Internet straight away, and that’s why they don’t know how to use the computer.”
In addition, if you were thinking of passing along your old laptop to your grandparent or parent, think again: “For young people, laptops are very convenient. So a granddaughter is not using her laptop anymore, and she decides to pass it along to her grandmother. This is the best way to make grandma fail. Her fingers are not so flexible anymore; she needs a big keyboard, a big screen. We don’t need laptops and tablets. Young people don’t understand that. If you want to give grandma a gift, spend the money and get her a desktop computer. There’s always room for one, you just need to plan it right.”
Sarah knows that not being afraid of computers sets her apart from most people her age, and wishes it could be different. “I think computers should be an ideal tool for people my age. You go out less, especially if you’re disabled. But they’re afraid, and it’s a hard barrier to overcome. [Computers] can open the world to disabled people. Are you lonely? Play a game on your computer, get angry with it for winning!”
Are We Really Better Off?
What will things look like when we’re 90 years old? Will we have a head start on technology, or will we too be a part of a completely different generation?
Getting a glimpse into the way older people view technology is definitely thought-provoking. There’s a common conception that 90-year-olds, and even 60 and 70-year-olds can’t use technology properly. This is obviously wrong, the subject vastly misunderstood.
Before speaking to these two amazing women, I couldn’t help but sometimes wonder, do we really need all this technology? The answer is we probably don’t, but if it’s useful enough and powerful enough for people from a whole different generation to use it, we must have something truly big in our hands. And yes, in all likelihood, we’re probably better off.
Do you have elderly grandparents? Parents? Aunts or uncles? They can make use of technology, and it can help them lead a better life. But think carefully before trying to help them — do they really need that new iPad? Is your old laptop really the best fit? Let these amazing women provide the inspiration, and find ways to make a difference for someone you care about. There’s nothing to be afraid of.