Ok Zoomer: how seniors are learning to lead more digital lives

A generation who grew up with black-and-white TV are now video chatting like teenagers – and for many the transition has been relatively painless

“I used to look at some people using WhatsApp video and think, I wonder what that’s all about,” says 74-year-old Jillian Cheetham. “Now, you know, I’ve discovered it’s pretty easy.”

Her book club, which has been going for 10 years, has just had its first Zoom meeting. “It was lovely to be together again and feel that we can keep on going,” Cheetham says.

“There’s no wine and cheese on the table or tea and cake at the end of it, it’s not as much fun when it’s virtual. But we’re discussing a book we all really enjoyed. And, apart from a few hitches like some people’s frames freezing, it was really, really satisfying.”

A few short weeks ago, that would have been unthinkable.

“Technology wasn’t really relevant until perhaps the last 25% of my career,” says Cheetham, a former high school teacher, business owner and financial industry professional.

“There was no training whatsoever. And if my computer wasn’t turning on I’d ring IT and they’d sort it out. Up until about 2000 you could learn the program specific to what you needed to do. There wasn’t a need to go beyond that if you didn’t want to.”

But that’s all had to change for her generation: “We’ve been forced to encounter technology in a very different way if we want to continue to have any quality of life.”

The need to connect is precisely what’s driving many seniors to do just that, according to RMIT’s Dr Torgeir Aleti, who’s researching how technology helps support connectedness and social inclusion among older people.

This confirms what he and his colleagues have suspected for a long time: “It’s just a stereotype that is constantly perpetuated, that seniors don’t know this stuff.

“The idea that it’s not for me, I don’t have the skills, or the resources, or I’m afraid of being bullied, or of doing something wrong – these things are now being pushed into the background because we’re in a situation where it’s that or just patting the cat for two weeks while I’m waiting to … go out again,” Aleti says.

Many are turning to younger generations for help, with mixed results.

“Over the phone, it’s, ah, it always starts off civil, and I always begin with the intention that somehow I’ll be able to solve her problem for her,” says Cheetham’s daughter, Naomi. “But as you know personally with technology, sometimes it becomes overwhelming, no matter how tech-savvy you may be.”

Tasks that could easily be demonstrated in person quickly turn into a multi-step tangle of complicated workarounds – like talking someone through using Zoom for the first time.

“I taught her to do a video call on WhatsApp first, and how to switch her camera around so I could see what she was doing on her screen rather than her face. It was an enormously clunky way to do it,” Naomi says.

“That’s when I realised she’d need a cheat sheet. I used the Snipping tool to show all the screens. It was like Ikea instructions – as few words as possible.”

Her mother sent that on to others, who passed it on to their friends too.

“Naomi is great,” Cheetham says, “I can’t sing her praises enough.”

But … “I find the best teachers are people of my own generation. That seems to work best for me, anyway.”

Glen Wall, the vice-president of U3A Network Victoria, agrees.

He’s seen a remarkable uptake in technology among members of the University of the Third Age organisation, which runs courses for older people, and has been moving classes online since early March. In less than three weeks 15 tutors in his area of Whittlesea were running sessions over Zoom, taking about half their students – the early adapters – with them. Wall says a second wave is now coming onboard.

U3A students join a remote ukulele class on Zoom
U3A students join a remote ukulele class on Zoom Photograph: U3A

“People are sort of socially figuring it out,” he says. “I know of a 94-year-old … who talked his 93-year-old mate into buying his old iPad off him. He bought a new one and he’s taught his mate to push that button so he can talk to him every morning.”

“Community connecters” are crucial to spreading the knowledge.

“They’ll be the sort of person that can use technology or find out how to, and then have the ability or passion to share the experience,” Wall says.

One such person is U3A member Awhina Te Amo, a full-time carer for her 70-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Before social distancing, Te Amo accompanied her mother to line dancing, choir, tap dancing, chair aerobics and tai chi. Now a lot of it is virtual.

“We also stay connected with others through WhatsApp, email, and I’m currently working on a YouTube channel,” Te Amo says. “We have a little group on Facebook and I’m teaching others what I’ve been learning. I’m just passing on the knowledge as best as I can.”

Relying on a trusted circle of people is the key to solving many technology dilemmas, according to Wall. “If a person talks about what they are looking to do – not how – in their group of friends, they will most likely find someone that’s actually done it. And that person will show them.”

Meanwhile, Cheetham is persevering with the unfamiliar. “If there’s one thing this coronavirus is going to do, it’s going to shift the balance from interactions more strongly in the direction of tech communication,” she says.

“So it’s one thing to prefer something else, but to be functional my generation are going to have to do it.”

Tech support for seniors

U3A Online and RMIT’s Shaping Connections project are both great places for older Australians to start building their technological skills. The federal government also has helpful resources, including an e-safety page for seniors; a number of short courses with detailed instructions on everything from online shopping to using apps; and a series of webinars about staying safe online.

Mariella Attard

The GuardianTramp

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