For years I’ve worried when old people say, “I’m bad at technology” or “I’m useless with computers” or “I hate technology, I get so frustrated.” I’ve worried because they are putting themselves down, blaming themselves for every frustration, and turning their backs on some of the tools that are essential or pleasurable.
It’s 2022, and by now computers and the internet have been common in workplaces for over 20 years. People working in a university may have been using computers since the 1960s! That means many of the people who damn themselves as useless and hopeless with technology were pioneers in that very technology. The technology now provides far, far more options and choices, which makes life more difficult, but on the whole it has also become more user-friendly.
And yet, and yet… things change.
A friend said recently, “Isn’t it strange that I can’t handle today’s technology? I used to work lights and sound and backstage in the theatre. I operated the first reel-to-reel tape machine in New Zealand. And yet today I’m hopeless at technology.” Yes, it is strange, I thought. How can that be.
Half the time, technology is being bad with us. But in certain ways, our aging bodies let us down.
- In old age, our short term memories quietly decline. And computer technology does require that faculty, or an alternative. So we need to plan for this and keep our personal management systems in shape. Some things that help me:
~ A good system for bookmarking and classifying specific web pages.
~ Regular decluttering of those bookmarks and the desktop.
~ 1Password — I love you I love you I love you I can’t live without you — but there are other good password management systems of course.
~ An old fashioned notebook with tips for software I use only occasionally.
~ Limiting the number of applications that I use and knowing them very well.
- Our eyesight declines, at least mine has. So we need to set up our hardware so that print is the right size for us and layouts simple and consistent. This is comforting and reassuring, and cuts down the number of things we might simply fail to notice.
- Our fine muscle movements are not always quite so fine after a certain number of birthdays. So buying hardware is a serious matter that needs extra thought and experimentation. If one phone doesn’t obey your fingers, don’t say you’re stupid. Keep looking, asking, simplifying, and getting lessons from the shop and from your friends and family.
- Decision making becomes more difficult as we get older. This one is tricky. Often for me, booking an air ticket takes longer than the flight!
- Maybe our self-esteem as an old person has been dented, so that we are far too quick to write ourselves off as “bad at technology.”
How can we old people raise our confidence with technology?
I can only speak for myself. When things go wrong with my hardware (i.e. laptop, printer, hubs, iPhone, Kindle, and iPad)
- I never say I’m bad with (ALL) technology. That’s not true. It’s not true of anyone, surely! I love my new electronic hearing aids and my microwave, for instance. And most of the time my hardware is an immense help to me. Sometimes I mess up, but that happens with other things too. I sometimes mess up appointments, but that doesn’t mean I’m bad with appointments.
- When things go wrong on my hardware I get puzzled, not angry. I don’t blame myself. The first rule of usability is that it’s NOT YOUR FAULT. I take a break and then go through all the usual steps of trying to identify the problem and fix it.Starting with turning the appliance off and on at the wall, a la The IT Crowd. If even a YouTube video can’t help me, I have a cup of coffee.
- I remember the years when I was an IT professional. I’m the same person today at 82. I choose to hold on firmly to that part of my identity.
Now that I understand that age-related changes do make some things more difficult, I feel more compassionate towards those who protest that they are digital dinosaurs. But I still hate to hear people talk like that. At best those cliches reinforce a false sense of inadequacy and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They cut off older people from stimulation and social opportunities. At worst, they prevent us from accessing all sorts of necessary services, from shopping and banking to paying tax.