How Embracing Technology Keeps You Young

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Article by 

Raelene Wilding

New technologies are being invented all the time. Embracing technology and keeping up with it all can sometimes feel too hard, especially if life is already busy. Why should you get on board with the latest app or the next new gadget? Won’t it just mean wasting time and money on something you don’t even need?

My work as a sociology researcher suggests the answer is both yes, and no. Yes, jumping on the bandwagon of the latest new technology can end up costing you time and money. But no, because sometimes that new technology can help to change your life for the better.

So how are seniors embracing technology?

For many years now, I have been working with groups of older people to introduce them to new technologies and talk to people about what technologies they use and why they use them. The stories I have been gathering over the years offer some good life lessons for all of us.

STREAMLINING YOUR LIFE

All carers face huge challenges. There never seems to be enough time to do everything in a day, and it is difficult to get the help and support that might make life a bit easier. New technologies are not going to solve these problems. But, there are now a lot of online services and apps that can be helpful.

Online grocery shopping services can save a lot of time and money by helping with meal planning and budgeting. You can create a list, search for specials, and organise a click-and-collect or home delivery service in your pyjamas.

There is also a wide range of apps that can help you to do everything from remembering and managing medications to monitoring diets, nutrition, exercise and sleep. You might also use apps to organise your personal records, create beautiful online photos and videos or send birthday and holiday greetings to friends and family.

Finding and bookmarking good quality websites can help you to have a wealth of valuable information at hand. Consider bookmarking the details of your local government, support services, social activities and other relevant and important information that you find useful.

LEARNING TO PLAY

One thing that I learned very early in my research is that older people think about embracing technology as a serious tool. This is true. But what they often don’t realise is that it can also be a source of fun. An important part of the sessions I run is learning and embracing technology for entertainment, pleasure and fun.

This might sound frivolous, but in fact, a lot of the games available online are also very good for your brain. Some people enjoy colouring or design games that help them to think about colour and form. Others enjoy word games such as Scrabble, Wordle or a wide range of wordfinding and crossword games.

There are many different trivia apps to help test and develop general knowledge. And then there are puzzle games to test your spatial awareness or simply to have fun trying something new.

It is always important to download your games from one of the reputable app stores. It is usually a good idea to try the free version before deciding to spend money on a game. If you find that you’re not having fun with a particular game, then just stop playing it and delete it, and look for something new.

New technologies might offer a new sparkle to your everyday life.

A more expensive option than mobile phone apps is a game-playing console or gaming computer. This can be quite a big investment but can help to open up new worlds of entertainment and fun.

When I introduced virtual reality to a group of older adults, they were sceptical at first. However, after a bit of time and experimenting, they started to find some games and experiences that they really enjoyed. One man was thrilled that he was able to take a virtual reality tour of some of the major museums in Europe. He had not been able to travel for years and particularly missed visiting cultural landmarks.

One of the women really enjoyed the deep sea diving experience, saying it reminded her of scuba diving as a younger woman. One of the quieter women in the group surprised herself and everyone else when it turned out she really enjoyed shooting at targets in a virtual reality shooting game – and was actually very good at it!

Gaming experiences like these can involve quite a big investment of money, so it is a good idea to ask around before buying one yourself. Does a friend or family member have a console that you can borrow for a while? Do they have some games that you could try? Trying before you buy can help you to find out whether this could be a good addition to your routine entertainment.

The key message here is to be open to the ways that new technologies might offer a new sparkle to your everyday life.

THINKING LIKE A TEENAGER

Back in 2001, Marc Prensky claimed that young people are ‘digital natives’ and that the rest of us are ‘digital immigrants’. What he means is that young people speak the language of the technology. They grow up with, while the rest of us have to learn that language. This means we never quite take those technologies for granted in the same way.

This idea can be helpful if we use it to stop giving ourselves a hard time. Yes, that teenager seems to know all about the latest computers. But do they also know how to use a landline telephone? And a fax machine? And a typewriter? Learning and re-learning new technologies can even give us an advantage. We know from experience that this latest computer will one day also end up in the dust heap of history. So, we tend to pay less attention to the marketing hype that surrounds each new gadget.

But what young people might be able to teach us is how to make the most of the technologies we do have.

Do you remember when a new mobile phone or computer would come in a box with a thick instruction booklet? The pages and pages of tiny writing in multiple languages, with an index so you could look up a particular feature? Digital immigrants still remember those instruction manuals and mourn their loss. In fact, some of the more dedicated digital immigrants will go to the trouble of finding an instruction manual online and printing out the pages they might need.

What does the digital native do?

  • They turn on the phone and start pressing the buttons.
  • They show it to their friends, who compare it with their own phones.
  • They learn about the phone by using it and by talking about it, not by reading about it in a book.

This has been one of the hardest things to teach digital immigrants. When I host sessions with older people to help them feel more confident using technologies, they are usually reluctant to experiment with their phones. They worry that they will press the wrong button or break something.

I had a lightbulb moment when a woman in her 80s said to me, ‘I keep hearing my mum’s voice in my head – don’t touch that, you’ll break it!’ She helped me understand that digital immigrants grew up being told to look but not touch and to only use technologies after they had been taught how to use them properly.

But the digital technologies of today simply don’t work that way. It would take several lifetimes to learn everything about your mobile phone. Instead, digital natives know that the best way of learning is by doing.

But this can also be done in safe ways that help to avoid something going wrong.

SHARING AND BEING SOCIAL

Digital natives don’t treat new technologies as sacred objects to be left alone. They play with them and through them. When they discover a new feature, they tell their friends about it, and they expect their friends to return the favour. If something goes wrong, they talk to their friends about it in the hope that someone will have a solution. And they usually do.

Digital natives learn about their technologies in social groups, not by reading instruction manuals. I discovered that this is something that digital immigrants don’t do very often. As one woman in her 90s once told me, ‘I can’t ask my son about that anymore. He gets frustrated when I ask him for help. A man in his 80s shared that he feels like a burden when he asks for help. A woman in her 70s told me she felt ashamed that she had not been able to keep up with digital technologies. She would rather just struggle along without a new phone than have to declare ignorance.

I was delighted when all of these men and women discovered that they could actually learn how to use the digital technologies that mattered to them. More importantly, they discovered the joys of meeting with each other once a week to share what they had learned. They made new friends and supported each other in using their devices more effectively.

You can start feeling like part of a community of tech savvy explorers

What does this tell us? Well, first, you might want to start talking to your friends about new technologies. What do they use? What do they struggle with? How does this compare with your experience? You could maybe challenge each other to find a new feature or game once a week. Then catch up over a cuppa to share your discoveries. Expanding the network of people you can turn to and share with can help you to feel less of a burden. You can start feeling like part of a community of tech-savvy explorers.

If your friends are not keen on this approach, there are also other options available. Libraries often have sessions for learning about new technologies or platforms. Consider attending some of their sessions, and maybe suggest that they host a weekly morning tea or ‘tech group’ for people to start being social with their technologies.

BEING SAFE ONLINE

When people are convinced that they would actually like to use new technologies more often, one of the biggest fears they face is online safety. We have all heard stories of people losing money or information online and the devastation this can cause.

It is very important to seek out trusted information about staying safe online. We all know how to cross the road safely to avoid the dangers of cars, buses and trucks (they were also new technologies once!). Now it is just as important to learn how to use the internet safely. Local libraries often offer excellent sessions to help keep you informed. There are also useful online resources – including Tech Savvy Seniors (https://www.telstra. com.au/tech-savvy-seniors) and Staying Safer Online (https://www.esafety.gov. au/seniors/staying-safer-online).

MAKING TECHNOLOGY CARE WITH YOU

There is no need to feel anxious about new technologies. There are lots of ways we can build confidence in using the latest devices and keep ourselves safe in the process.

One step we can take is to start thinking about technology as a tool instead of a goal. We don’t need to use a bulldozer to weed the garden. In the same way, we don’t always need to have the latest gadget in order to do our online shopping or keep up to date on social media. Think carefully about what it is you want the technology to do, and then choose the tool that best helps you to meet that need.

The pace of change in new technologies can make it easy to feel overwhelmed. But new technologies should be looked at as a source of support, which you can choose to use or ignore. If you start to feel that you are caring more for your technologies than they are caring for you, then it might be time to pause and reset. Reach out to some friends, your library and trusted online information so that you can take back control of the tools in your life.

Dr Raelene WildingAssociate Professor, Sociology La Trobe University


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