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Grandparents Can Code Too

    Last Updated on May 17, 2023

    Digital Technologies Offer the Ability to Improve the Lives of the Elderly

    As we age, we begin to wear out – some of us faster than others, and in different ways. Our energy levels decrease, functions and abilities we enjoyed in our youth can begin to fail us.  What might be minor physical, emotional, and mental hiccups when we are young, can become urgent problems as we get older. You don’t have to be a grandparent either.

    Why is Digital Independance Important for Seniors?
    Technology: Something is Always Changing
    Having a Digital Competence is Important for Everyone
    Problem Solving – Focusing on Need-Oriented Technologies
    Accessibility to Technology Means Lifelong Learning
    Tools and Technology Must be Inclusive

    Digital technologies offer the ability to enhance some of our lost skills, rebuild upon missed opportunities, and thus improve our quality of life as we age.

    The internet and digital technologies are becoming increasingly important in more and more areas of everyday life. For many of us, our livelihoods depend on them. For older generations to benefit from these technologies, it will take more than the ability to download apps to smartphones or transfer money via online banking.

    Why is Digital Independance Important for Seniors?

    Charlie, we both know how frustrating it can be to master a tool, and then have it changed – upgraded – “improved”! The necessary skill sets required by Seniors are made much more difficult by the speed of change, language of tech, and often the price (skill or monetary) required for access. In addition, many of the digital skills we have are work related.

    Yes, those changes can be *very* frustrating indeed!

    And, not just for seniors, Charlie. However, for senior citizens, many of whom left their jobs before computers entered the workplace, the digital divide may be widening. This is unfortunate, because online applications can facilitate not only learning and socializing but can help older adults to preserve their independence. In addition, many people are working after the usual retirement age.

    This is so true. Especially when you think of decreased mobility, online applications can add so much to quality of life. Being able to submit forms online instead of taking a letter to the post office; keeping in touch with friends; chatting with family members and friends on Skype; ordering groceries online (although I have made the frustrating experience that exactly the brand of tea that is in the shops and that I want is of course not available through online shopping – but that’s just an aside…); making new friends through interest and online support groups; learning new skills; using a meditation app… – there is so much out there.

    My mom steadfastly refused to learn how to use a computer, and I always felt sorry and frustrated on account of what she was missing out on and would have enjoyed a lot.

    On the other hand, perhaps she was keeping herself safe.  Some days I do long for the days of typewriters and paper. As more and more tech arrive to “make our lives easier”, we are challenged to adapt to more devices, and more options. It can be stressful. 

    Technology: Something is Always Changing

    As technology changes, the tools we used in our youth are being replaced with new ones; our television is being replaced by a laptop, our telephone by a smartphone/computer, and our shopping list and radio by a digital assistant like Alexa.  This isn’t to say, however, that current tools are exclusive. Even today, a typewriter and a personal visit can contribute to a sale.

    Yes, and it has always been like that, ‘old’ media and technology being replaced by the ‘new’ – and there has always been distrust of this happening. Did you know that when books first started being available to the public, there was concern that now the ‘lower classes’ would start to read and take all those romance novels literally, chambermaids waiting for Prince Charming to carry them off on their shining horse?

    Technological changes are in many ways positive in nature (including perhaps being carried off on a horse rather than having to walk).  They help us with our everyday tasks and bring new solutions for Seniors and others requiring assistance. However, the speed of technological change, the requisite adaption and learning, and the cost of entry and access to much of this tech, is creating a digital divide. This divide is apparent not only between generations, but between economic demographics. 

    ” … Developing Digital Competence should be considered as a continuum from instrumental skills towards productive and strategic personal competence. Mastering basic tools and computer applications is only a first step towards advanced knowledge, skills and attitudes.”


    I completely agree, and I would think that this digital divide is quite pervasive already. I would distinguish here between ‘the digital divide level 1’, concerning access to and willingness to use computers and other digital tools in the first place. And then there’s ‘the digital divide level 2’, where the skills you mention here become relevant (

    Here we already have a huge divide between those who just use the content that is out there and those who can create content themselves. I think that this is where the coding ability comes in that you mention in the title to this contribution. Coding really is an important currency in this fast-developing online world.

    Yes. Taking this one step further – access dependant not only on skill and need but on price.  I see a time when good tech, reliable internet/wifi, good devices will be available only at considerable cost and then only to a very small segment of the population. 

    As it is today when it comes to quality food, water, and quality of life, there will still be internet and wifi, mobile phones, software etc for everyone – but I believe there will be a divide between our tech and their tech much like there is a difference between eating at McDonalds or at a Michelin restaurant. When we are talking about healthcare, education, housing, food and water – that becomes a very scary but very possible future.

    “Innovation and technological progress inevitably require all of us to acquaint ourselves with new tools throughout life – no matter our age. These innovative solutions, assistive technologies or digital services tailor-made to the needs and preferences of older people harbor great potential to improve the quality of life and support independent living, also later in life.”

    Having a Digital Competence is Important for Everyone

    Digital Competence is seen as “one of the key competences for lifelong learning“ (European Parliament and the Council, 2006). Without it, we reduce our capacity to engage with the current social, cultural, and economic setting.

    Rapid developments in eHealth, tele-care and assistive technologies are being translated from cutting-edge experiments into commonplace practical solutions. As importantly, every-day digital technologies such as computers, tablets, smart phones, personal assistants, and Smart Home devices are becoming more pervasive.

    The stereotype of Seniors being opposed to digital developments and unwilling or afraid to engage with Tech can no longer be taken for granted. Many seniors continue to work after retirement, and digital technologies must be both user-friendly and adjusted to specific user needs regardless of their working age.

    Captchas and security words are prime examples of “technologies… [that] are not developed with older people in mind”.


    I very much agree with you here. Yes, there are still seniors out there – take the example of my mom above – who are not willing to engage with digital technology at all. But over the coming years, the generation of the baby boomers will make that transition into becoming seniors – our generation.

    For the most part, baby boomers have been using digital technology for a long time and are happy to engage with it – we built the internet and created computer games for goodness sake. However, those captchas are a good case in point. They aren’t designed with the older generation in mind.

    Problem Solving – Focusing on Need-Oriented Technologies

    When we think of digital technologies assisting Seniors we think of Smart Homes, large touch screens on the walls, and personal assistant robots hovering nearby.  The reality however is much less sci-fi and much more financially realistic.  Probably the existence of a non-smart phone and a television are by far the most often used digital devices in the lives of Seniors.

    Keeping it Small and Simple, ways should be explored to capitalise on the Senior ‘s familiarity with phone and television – for example by extending the television functions to online connection or introducing Seniors to alternative ways of making phone calls such as with Skype or Zoom.

    What are some of the needs Seniors have – that we all have?  Communication, Diet, Medical, Prevention, and Mobility are some basic needs.  In what way can we easily address these needs, at a very basic level using just a computer and a browser connected to the internet?

    In order to understand more about the elderly demographic and how we can help them, we need to better understand not only their access to digital devices, but more importantly their needs. A need is not how to use social media. A need is to connect with friends or family. A need is not how to use an iPhone. A need is to call their daughter because they have a question or need help.

    As a way to communicate (email and chat), learning other skills (moocs, youtube), shopping (amazon et al.), collecting and sharing (open and save pictures of grandchildren on social media), reading and staying informed (online newspapers) are some of the many tasks that can be accomplished on the internet.

    One of the best apps for seniors is AARP. It’s a trustworthy source for senior-focused news, recipes, reviews, and membership information. Exactly what you would hope for in a social media platform.

    Accessibility to Technology Means Lifelong Learning

    Even simple tasks such as clicking on links and understanding the difference between the address bar and a search box can immediately be confusing for elderly people.  The nervousness of using a new technology, or the insecurity of clicking the wrong button can make the experience less than desirable for them. 

    I completely agree concerning the relevance of needs-based technology, and that some seemingly simple tasks can be confusing to an elderly person who has no experience using a computer. With the needs-based technology, the solutions seem obvious, and research on this is already being done – take for example at the MIT Age Lab. But concerning those other issues, the solution seems less obvious to me.

    The distinction between the address bar and a search box, for instance – this is already so much part of the current internet architecture that it does not seem realistic to change it in any way. Here it seems important to increase the digital confidence and competence of seniors. It’s important that they learn that nothing terrible happens if they press ‘the wrong button’. The computer does not go up in flames, nor is it broken.

    The solution here can only be education. At the very least access to learning. One day everyone will know how to access a browser, and probably that will itself will change. For the time being, if tech is to be truly inclusive, we need to reach out to seniors via community college courses, educating caregivers, and giving them access to tech in retirement homes.

    When we think of the needs of Seniors, we should be wary of “digital optimism” – technology is simply another tool we have available to improve the lives of – at least in Europe- the largest percentage of our population. 

    The MIT AgeLab is a multidisciplinary research program that works with business, government, and NGOs to improve the quality of life of older people and those who care for them. The AgeLab applies consumer-centered systems thinking to understand the challenges and opportunities of longevity and emerging generational lifestyles to catalyze innovation across business markets.

    Tools and Technology Must be Inclusive

    How can we ensure the participation of older members of society in the current digital transformation? How can we ensure that digital remains both inclusive and accessible, so that older members of society are not excluded?

    The answers to these questions require us to first understand what participation means – namely the empowerment and autonomy of Seniors in our society.

    Good digitalisation practices cannot be dictated from the outside.  We must have options – and the right support – to use technology to improve our lives.

    We must use the tools and excitement that is part of the current digital transformation to spark curiosity, agitate for funding and access, and proactively incite participation. New tools and ways of doing things should not restricted by price or education – they should be available to and useful for everyone.

    And when there are lower threshold digital solutions available – that have ideally been designed with the needs of the older generation in mind – Seniors will themselves want to participate. And once this is the case, their curiosity will do its part in driving innovation.

    Digital Skills for Smart Seniors

    A Resource for Seniors, Family Members, and Caregivers

    This book aims to encourage and enable seniors to use digital media independently for everyday tasks.

    Understanding media allows you to be a critical thinker, an effective communicator, and an active citizen – online and off. Competence with digital tools means giving you the confidence to solve problems.

    Take every opportunity to increase your abilities and knowledge so that you have a better quality of life!

    Digital Skills for Smart Seniors: A Resource for Seniors, Family Members, and Caregivers paperback and ebook by Warren Laine-Naida

    The Smart Seniors Program offers structured, practice-oriented learning opportunities. The aim is to teach Seniors, supporters, professional assistants, and relatives how to use the new tools playfully and entertainingly. In addition to introductions to the topic, practical events are offered to address specific needs.

    Learn more about the Smart Seniors Program

    Sources and Further Reading

    Image by: metatdgt @ pexels

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