Our Senior Parents in the Age of the Internet

Bringing them into the Technological Loop

As the thirty- or forty-something child of an adult over the age of 62, you probably don’t remember what life was like when people managed to live without a television in every room and a cell phone permanently stuck to the side of everyone’s head.  Can you even imagine a time when it was possible to exist without a telephone in your own home?  Maybe your parents have taken the computer age in stride, but for many older people the current state of our technology-driven lives can seem overwhelming, even shocking, when compared to the card games, reading, and conversation that helped to while away the evenings in days gone by.  Keep in mind that in the middle of the last century, radio was the peak of in-home electronic entertainment.

As difficult as these historic truths might be for most younger Americans to imagine now, likewise senior citizens of today could never have imagined, as they were growing up, the shocking leaps and bounds technology has taken over the past fifty years. From telephones to televisions to microwave ovens to VCRs to computers, we have watched our lives change through the advent of constant inventions, as well as remodels and upgrades of every piece of equipment we thought we knew. Not only can our computers now be used for listening to and recording music, watching films, and sending and receiving information, they are getting increasingly smaller, faster, and more like magic with each passing year. Imagine a wireless, wallet-sized computer that stores thousands and thousands of songs, photographs, and videos, can make phone calls and connect to the Internet. It’s called the iPhone. You may even have one – and if not, most likely you have at least one grandchild that does.

So what do we do with all this technology? We have a choice: embrace it or ignore it. If you are an older adult, you might be tempted to simply let the constantly developing technological world pass you by under the defeatist idea that an older dog can’t learn new tricks. But if you allow that ageist adage to rule your decisions about technological advances, you’ll be missing out on, not only a world, but an endless universe of information, entertainment, and connection to people all over the planet via the Internet.

While in the past three and even four generations of family members often lived under the same roof, in modern times kids leave the nest early and frequently settle thousands of miles away from their families of origin. The Internet allows us to stay in constant and immediate touch with children, grandchildren, and all of our relatives in a way we could never have conceived even twenty years ago. As an older adult who is willing to venture into the world of the Internet, you can see and share photos, news, recipes, exchange emails and stay up to date on each other’s lives. You’re a native New Yorker and your grand-daughter is at Stanford? Of course nothing compares to a good old-fashioned hug and serving her a lovingly home-cooked meal, but distance no longer seems quite as far when you can see her face and keep in closer touch than used to be possible.

But beyond keeping close to distant family, the Internet provides a seemingly infinite supply of information. You no longer have to strain your eyes to read the newspaper on actual paper when you can subscribe online. Not only can you use the “larger font” button to enlarge the print to a comfortable and readable size, but by reading the news on your computer, you also avoid collecting bulky newspapers that can be heavy and awkward, and you help the environment by reducing the amount of paper altogether.

The Internet is a great resource for news, but it can also provide an answer to almost any question. Wondering what time the film you want to see is playing in your neighborhood? It’s easy enough to find out. Is there a restaurant you want to try that can’t quite remember the name of? Also simple enough to discover by typing a few key words into your search bar. If you have a health concern, you can usually find pages and pages of information both scientific and anecdotal to fill in the blanks. You can find lists of doctors and specialists. You can find discussion forums where you can read about the experiences of other people with the same conditions or difficulties. In this way you can easily find help and support if you or a family member is going through a tough time with an illness. And finding generic versions of your name-brand medications and vitamins at competitive prices is also a breeze.

As the thirty- or forty-something child of an adult over the age of 62, you probably don’t remember what life was like when people managed to live without a television in every room and a cell phone permanently stuck to the side of everyone’s head.  Can you even imagine a time when it was possible to exist without a telephone in your own home?  Maybe your parents have taken the computer age in stride, but for many older people the current state of our technology-driven lives can seem overwhelming, even shocking, when compared to the card games, reading, and conversation that helped to while away the evenings in days gone by.  Keep in mind that in the middle of the last century, radio was the peak of in-home electronic entertainment.

As difficult as these historic truths might be for most of us to imagine now, likewise senior citizens of today could never have imagined, as they were growing up, the leaps and bounds technology has taken over the past fifty years.  From telephones to televisions to microwave ovens to VCRs to computers, we have watched our lives change through the advent of constant inventions, as well as remodels and upgrades of every piece of equipment we thought we knew.  Not only can our computers now be used for listening to and recording music, watching films, and sending and receiving information, they are getting increasingly smaller, faster, and more like magic with each passing year.  As kids growing up in the 80’s we were wowed by the advent of the CD as it started to replace cassettes.  Now we have a wireless, wallet-sized computer that stores thousands and thousands of songs, photographs, moving images, and the capability to connect to the Internet.  It’s called the iPod Touch. It is difficult to fathom but there are fewer and fewer people under the age of 45 who don’t have one.

So what do we do with our parents in the context of all this technology? We have the same choice they do: embrace it or ignore it.  An older adult might be very tempted to simply let the constantly developing technological world pass by under the defeatist idea that an older dog can’t learn new tricks.  But if we allow our parents to stick by that ageist adage and rule their decisions about technological advances, they’ll be missing out on not only a world, but an endless universe of information, entertainment, and connection to people all over the planet via the Internet. Not to mention the frustration when we want to share downloaded pictures of a recent vacation or shoot off a quick email from the office but we can’t because our parents refuse to acknowledge the existence of the computer itself.

Of course the best way to lure the older generation into the worldwide web is through the irresistible idea of staying connected to family. Though three and even four generations of family members used to live together, we know that kids in modern times leave the nest early and frequently settle thousands of miles away from families of origin.  Use of the Internet is the only was to stay in constant and immediate touch with family, which is vital for our parents and grandparents, whose children and grandchildren may be scattered all over the globe. As an older adult who is willing to venture into the world of the Internet, your parent will be able see and share photos, news and recipes, as well as exchange emails and stay up to date on each other’s lives.  If you’re a native New Yorker with a daughter at Stanford, your parents can still be a part of her life and keep abreast of each event in her world as it’s happening.  Of course nothing compares to a good old-fashioned hug and serving her a square meal, but distance no longer seems quite as far with photo-sharing and the possibility of constant email exchange, and even live chat, if your parents are willing and nimble enough typists.

But beyond keeping close to distant family, also appealing to older adults is the idea that the Internet provides a seemingly infinite supply of information.  Your parents no longer have to strain their eyes to read the newspaper on actual paper when they can subscribe online.  By simply using the “larger font” button, print is enlarged to a comfortable and readable size.  Also, by reading the news on the computer, the collection of bulky newspapers can be avoided. Not only does this help the environment by reducing the amount of paper altogether, it might cut down on the heavy lifting your parents have to do, which will certainly be a relief to all of you.

The Internet is a great resource for news, but it can also provide an answer to almost any question.  This is a huge draw for the senior citizen community, especially those who are retired and seeking activities.  Wondering what time the film they want to see is playing in the neighborhood?  It’s easy enough to find out.  Is there a restaurant they want to try and can’t quite remember the name of?  Also simple enough to discover by typing a few key words into their search bar.  And of course the Internet is a great tool when it comes to medical questions.  If there is a health concern, one can usually find pages and pages of information both scientific and anecdotal to fill in the blanks, though it is important to remind our parents that some of these must be taken with a grain of salt!  But in a purely informational capacity in the health field, the Internet can be invaluable in terms of finding lists of doctors and specialists, including ratings, details of their education, and even background checks.  And if your parent is suffering from a particular ailment, discussion forums where he or she can read about the experiences of other people with the same conditions or difficulties can provide a lot of support.  Finding generic versions of name-brand medications and vitamins at competitive prices is also a breeze.

Though fully mobile older persons can and do make constant use of the Internet in all of the ways mentioned above, it is especially useful and beneficial for homebound adults who have a hard time getting out of the home.  If your parent has a hard time getting out, shopping online is a convenient way to cut down on the stress of venturing away from home.  Not only can clothing and household supplies be ordered from catalogue-style websites, which will seem somewhat familiar to your parent, now more and more grocery stores and drug stores receive orders online and deliver right to the home. 

When it comes to entertainment, the Internet provides free access to games to play online, from cards to word and memory games, which can be played alone or with other people also homebound or just looking for a way to pass the time.  And while this may seem like a frivolous reason to push to connect someone to the Internet, games like this can help to keep the mind sharp and active, a very important factor for older homebound adults.  Similarly, for older persons who have lost some of their hearing, using the Internet to converse with other people is a great way to feel part of a community. It is also possible to read books online, as well as listen to music.  But one of the best advantages of using the Internet for homebound people is that they can find forums for live chat and connect to people around the world in a way previously unimagined. Because of the Internet, the solitary lonely life of a homebound person is a thing of the past.  Older adults living alone no longer need to be victims of isolation or feel forgotten. 

So how do we get the older people in our lives connected?  If they live nearby, it’s easy enough to sit down and offer a few lessons on navigating the Internet.  If this isn’t possible, most local libraries offer free classes on learning how to use the Internet, and websites especially for senior citizens are now plentiful.  Through these, older persons can find senior community centers near home, Meals on Wheels services, or basically anything else they might be seeking, including friends, a community, and a way to be connected to the world at large.

Though computers may seem intimidating to older people at first, it’s our responsibility to convince them that it is well worth their while to learn how to use them to their advantage.  Just think: how different would your life be now without Internet access? Imagining the lack of connection to friends, family, information, entertainment, and work is actually scary! This just goes to show how important it is to share the full capacity of the web-accessible world with our older parents.

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