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Grandma Computer Illiterate? Might be More Dangerous than You Think

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Do you have a technology participation gap in your family? We do. In fact, most families do somewhere.

For us, we have a few older relatives who firmly believe that technology is for “the younger generation”. What’s interesting is that some of these people are not that old, at least not “old” as I definite it.

One relative, for example, was a working woman in her younger days. Retired now, she never bought into any technology past the 1970s! Truly…beyond the automobile, refrigerator, TV, radio, dishwasher, washer and drier, she has seen no need for anything else. Although  she has grudgingly begun to use email and the web, she has deemed herself  ”old” and refused to use a cell phone or any other “high tech device”.

Various relatives have tried many strategies to pull her along to the era of 2010 from buying her cell phones for the holidays to simple go phones. Some have tried to resort to “show and tells” with their own portable devices or those of their kids. No success. She simple nods and then states “I’m fine. What does a woman my age need with one of those?”  I know what you’re thinking…point out women her age, perhaps friends, who use those technologies. We’ve tried. She always has a reason she is different.

In truth, many people of the older generation in our society are adapters of technology and do well. The amount of older members of society using technologies such as cell phones and social media sites such as Facebook is, in fact, on a steady rise. Those are not the members of society we need to worry about. The members of society we need to worry about are the ones like my relative – the ones refusing to hear the sound of technology calling and simply refuse to try.

I don’t feel that education nor age need be a reason for our still present participation gap or digital divide in society. I do prefer Henry Jenkins phrase “participation gap” because it best describes the phenomenon we are seeing. It isn’t about digital use or not use. My relative, for example, is using a computer and has proven she can be computer literate. It is 100% about participation.

Why is lack of participation an issue? Should we just leave these folks, folks like my “old” relative, alone? To a degree this is about choice. If people want to not use technology it is most certainly a choice. There is no law that states “thou shall be on Facebook” or “thou shall have a cell phone”.

No. That isn’t it.

What I worry about is more practical applications of technology and what these nonusers fail to see about our society. For example, our society no longer has pay phones and public phones. People like my relative who refuse to carry a cell phone often fail to understand that social trend. Should a medical emergency occur in their car, while on a walk, or should they get into a car accident, cell phones are today’s life line. That is just the way it is. They need to understand they won’t find a public phone as they could even a decade ago nor should they expect people to stop and offer help they way they may have in the 1970s!

Beyond the practical safety issues, lack of full participation online also puts people out of step with today’s true world. Most of the news, for example, is online. Most communication with family and friends is by cell phone and social media sites. People not adopting these technologies will become more isolated socially from the world at large and their own worlds of their friends and family, which is especially not healthy for the older populations.

So, how do we help our older relatives be better digital participants? We simply don’t give up and we embrace the positive. We show them they can stay in touch with their friends and grandkids in other areas via technology, and we set it up for them. Buy another cell phone, program it and put it on the counter. Send them texts and then  call to see if the texts arrived. Eventually, they’ll become interested and send one back!

To truly get someone to participate, we have to keep inviting them to the digital dance. Once they say “yes”, they’ll realize that technology won’t deprive them of the life they have, but help them have that life even more fully.

This generation of people taught us a great deal of the offline world through our lives with patience and love. Now it’s our turn to help them dip a toe in the online world with the same love and patience. Like a child taking their first step, it will take time…but it will occur.


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