There are many reports in the news that seniors are amazingly capable and resilient when it comes to embracing new technology in this age of COVID-19 lockdown. This has proven to be true in many instances. The elderly seniors who live on the Menno Place campus of care, where I work, have seen more technology changes in their lifetime than any generation previous.
Just in the past 20 years, they have navigated the mobile phone – from wireless to smartphones. They have gone from VHS tapes to DVDs to streaming services. Less than half of households had a computer in the year 2000 and now, most seniors have a computer or a tablet to navigate the internet and social media. When Facebook was launched in 2004, it became an overnight sensation with over one million monthly active users by the end of that year.
Information and misinformation
I’ll never forget speaking with one senior in 2011 who was planning to “Snype” his grandson. He was excited about the possibility of face-to-face video communication and laughed when I told him that it was Skype, not Snype. He had wondered why the technology was using a term that alluded to snipers and killing. He said, “I thought it was just one of those weird names like Google – names that aren’t really names.”
I recently spoke to a family member about a concern that related to our campus of care. We realized that the information she received had been mis-heard by her severely deaf parent. Regardless, she said, “Oh no, I will have to send out a WhatsApp to correct this information. We have a WhatsApp group of 65 relatives, and they all heard the wrong thing instantly when she sent it.”
Yes, this technology can really speed up the flow of information and the flow of misinformation.
For many seniors, the changing technology brings frustrations. In the 1980’s, these seniors carefully took important photos of their lives and families, recording them in photo albums or on slides organized in trays and stored for future viewing.
Now, those photos need to be digitized, sometimes at great cost. The process to transition photos to digital photos can be overwhelming and left as a project that takes immense initiative and determination – both to learn the new process, purchase the appropriate equipment and figure out the steps to create a new library of important memories. Some bring their photo memories to other companies to do the digitizing for them and many just let the photos sit there for their kids and grandkids to figure out.
Elderly seniors have lived their lives without the addiction to the smartphone, social media, internet browsing or email. When we interviewed 10 elderly seniors at Menno Place, none said that the COVID-19 lockdown had dramatically changed their interactions with technology.
Happy without more technology
“I try to use my free time to be productive. I don’t use any new technology and I enjoy talking with my friends and relatives by phone” said one resident in his late 80’s. “I miss the face-to-face interaction, but I don’t really miss or feel the need for any more technology.”
This sentiment was true for many of the seniors – they are accustomed to speaking with their loved ones by phone and enjoy the conversations this way. “I have no need for Zooming,” said another senior, “Why wouldn’t I just phone people?”
The younger generation is eager to see people when they speak with them – or to get groups together to connect with their elderly loved one. This can be confusing for a senior as they try to watch all the people on Zoom and try to figure out who is speaking and who isn’t. They don’t intuitively know when its their turn or if it ever is their turn to speak.
One family reached out to us to organize Zoom for their mother to watch her grandson getting married. This initiative took many people to organize. Mom doesn’t have a computer or tablet. She’s never been interested. She doesn’t want to learn a new software in order to do this one time. It’s too unfamiliar. We had a staff member bring a tablet and set it up for her. It meant a lot to witness her grandson’s wedding, but not enough to “do all this hassle” for regular communication. “Why not just phone if you want to talk with someone,” she asked.
Several elderly seniors told us that they are very happy being on their own. They may feel lonely, but they’ve learned how to be alone. One woman said that her card-making kept her busy and fulfilled. I love to make cards and I am very busy doing that. She is happy with the phone calls with family and the busy-ness of her hobby.
Another said, “My days are full. I have no interest in technology.” She enjoys reading and keeps busy with exercises and watching some television. “I don’t have time for computers.”
“My daughter set up Skype, so I do that for her. She wants to see me to make sure I’m living, I guess. I am,” he laughed.
What is missed most
Almost all of the elderly seniors said that what they do miss is the face-to-face time together and with their families. “It’s not the same to look at a screen. I just miss being together with people.”
Conversations in a group are stimulating and interesting. The seniors miss having a coffee and talking about kids, families, politics and the ever-changing world. They miss the laughter, the spontaneous conversations, learning about others and learning about the world through other’s eyes.
They miss the casual interactions, the funny happenings, the smiles from the staff and friends. They miss hugs. They miss looking into a loved one’s eyes and seeing the affection. They miss simple smiles and the acknowledgement that they matter – and that you matter.
They don’t miss the computer crashing, the screen going blue or black, the stress of no volume or accidentally touching the screen and losing everything. They don’t miss the anxiety of trying to fix something and not knowing who to call. They don’t miss feeling stupid with computers when they are actually accomplished people whose lives are full of knowing and doing amazing things in a time when engineering, letter writing, research, medical techniques, curriculum development, recipe knowledge and so much more was done without artificial intelligence.
Is technology being embraced?
Do seniors embrace technology in a new way during these COVID-19 days of lockdown? Yes… and no. For many, life goes on as it always has. Relationships go on as they always have, primarily by phone. For some, the step into a special event like their grandson’s wedding is treasured but won’t forge a new path for them to change the flow of their daily lives.
And through it all, the gratitude that the seniors feel for those who are ensuring that their lives are safe is their primary communication. They miss their friends and family. They miss the meals with each other. They miss the coffees and the laughs. All of this missing is balanced with their deep understanding of how their age makes them vulnerable in a unique way to this elusive virus whose invisible transmission is fatal for many in their age group. “Isolation is hard,” says one elderly man, “but dying of this virus is much harder. Thank you for doing everything you can to keep us safe.”