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Wall Street Journal / Tech - Game

Want to Get Tech Savvy? Don’t Ask Your Children

Tech often fails seniors, and it isn’t their fault. But it isn’t their children’s fault, either. Geoffrey A. Fowler offers some ways to make smartphones, laptops and iPads less frustrating for seniors and the people who love them.
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Geoffrey A. Fowler

“Click what?” “Plug where?” Asking your offspring for tech support is... just asking for it.

Their responses, often accompanied by an eye roll: “Why is that so hard?” or “I already showed you!”

Older adults are wising up to how iPads, smartphones and fitness trackers can improve their lives. But a key to conquering fears and thriving with new technology is knowing where to get help that won’t run out of patience.

Anything containing circuits tends to amplify teenage brattiness, adult anxieties about aging—and senior insecurities about being left behind. Children can feel dismay, frustration and anger when Mom and Dad can’t master texting a photo. If at all possible, get an outsider involved.

Cheryl de la Mere, 71, works on her laptop at a branch of the San Francisco Public Library on August 6.Photo: Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Wall Street Journal

That’s what brought Cheryl de la Mere, 71, with her big silver laptop and a taped-on list of passwords, to a San Francisco Public Library branch last weekend. She was there for assistance from a teenage volunteer named Justin.

Asking family members “brings out too many emotions,” Ms. de la Mare said. “Justin here is not going to insult me.”

It’s Not Your Fault

The biggest tech obstacle for seniors is the false sense that it’s just for young people. Much of the blame belongs on tech companies. Seniors are a growing market yet treated as an afterthought by developers, very few of whom are seniors themselves. Fitbit , for one, mostly markets its trackers with images of young people running marathons and rarely with retirees hitting the mall for a power walk.

That’s a mistake for several reasons. Engineers hoping to change the world would be hard pressed to find a better target population. Seniors face tremendous challenges with isolation, financial independence and health—which video chats, savings apps and wearables can help.

In fact, tech companies ought to employ retirees as product testers. “Seniors are the canaries in the coal mine for bad technology design,” says Thomas Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services, a New York nonprofit.

The shift from keyboards to touch screens made computing more accessible. But software still hides functions behind hieroglyphic icons and impossible-to-guess finger swipes. “I am afraid of pushing a wrong button. I am afraid I will lose something important,” Ms. de la Mere said.

The reality is, today’s tech is hard to break. It’s also a good way to find more fulfillment, especially after retirement.

“Smart devices have so much to offer along with a better quality of life, I am surprised more people are not in a learning mode,” says Kent Hayward, 77, of Aurora, Ill. He got up to speed by taking classes at an Apple store and now teaches classes at his public library.

What Doesn’t Work

“The problem with family members, especially if they’re in their 20s or 30s, they don’t really have any patience,” says Versie Martin, 65, a recent retiree who lives in New York. “They may show you very quickly, and once they show you, then they expect you to get it and they don’t want to repeat it again.”

David Leung, center, learns the basics of web browsing on a desktop computer during a class called "Beyond the Basics" at the Senior Planet Exploration Center in New York City on August 7.Photo: Sangsuk Sylvia Kang/The Wall Street Journal

Abby Stokes, a veteran tech trainer and author of “Is This Thing On?”, won’t even touch a mouse while working with seniors, whom she calls “digital immigrants.” “Seeing how fast and easily I can do something only proves to be counterproductive,” she says

Talking to Wall Street Journal readers (yes, you!) and professional trainers, I spotted some other avoidable tech mistakes for seniors and people who love them.

Don’t stick seniors with castaway gadgets. I’ve written about many good uses for out-of-date gear. If you no longer want that jittery old iPad, why would you expect your mom to have a quality experience with it?

Be skeptical of so-called senior tech. So much is either junk, or more accurately described as accessibility tech. Most often, seniors need products that are easy to learn, not reduced in functionality.

And seniors, don’t assume everybody under 20 loves tech and knows enough to work at the Genius Bar. That young person may have no idea how to back up a computer, leaving everyone embarrassed.

What Works

If you do find yourself seeking or giving family tech support, take a deep breath. Biases about aging run deep. Learning to operate a smartphone is a lot like learning a language: It won’t happen quickly, and it definitely won’t work when only one of you does all the talking.

Pam Bergen-Saperstein learns how to use an iPad in a Connect class at the Senior Planet Exploration Center in New York City, on August 7.Photo: Sangsuk Sylvia Kang/The Wall Street Journal

Look the person you’re working with in the eye. If you live far away, use a program such as the free Teamviewer that allows both sides to see and remotely control what’s happening on the Mac or PC screen.

But seniors, instead of treating relatives as tech-support hotlines, the better plan is to find help from people who are technically—and emotionally—ready.

Apple stores provide free setup for any new product. Training classes can be hit or miss, but it’s hard to beat free. One “basics” class I attended recently was pretty advanced, but instructors are taught to tailor the content to their group. Apple also offers “studio hours” where anyone can get one-on-one help on a project like organizing vacation photos. ( Microsoft stores also offer personal classes, for a fee.

Chances are, you can get free support at your public library. Across the U.S., libraries challenged by the rise of Google and e-books are having a great second act: 62% offer training on new tech devices, according to the American Library Association. When I met Ms. de la Mere at the library, Justin, the volunteer techie, was in such high demand that I worried a senior brawl might break out.

Elizabeth Pooran, a program associate at the Senior Planet Exploration Center, teaches seniors how to use iPads in a "Connect!" class on August 7. Photo: Sangsuk Sylvia Kang/The Wall Street Journal

Senior centers, too, are getting smart about crafting tech-training programs that really work. The Senior Planet Exploration Center in New York, offering people age 60-plus long-term, highly social programs, is a model that ought to be replicated. On a recent Monday, the center felt like the common room in a college dorm, with seniors playing with laptops on couches, or banging through Solitaire and email at desktops. One woman, stuck at home, popped in for some fun via a telepresence robot.

Senior Planet centers, which Older Adults Technology Services also operates in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Montgomery County, Md., has learned through trial and error that people aren’t interested in learning to use a computer as an end in itself. “People are here for a purpose,” Mr. Kamber said. “When they ask about email, they’re really talking about communication. When they talk about Excel, they really want budgets.”

Retired Wall Street bank employee Bob O’Neill, 68, took a class and enjoyed it so much he started volunteering there. He loves welcoming newcomers. “They’re embarrassed when they first come in. They say, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ And we say, ‘Well, you’re in good company.’ ” he says. “Nobody’s left behind.”

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