Technology: Opening doors for seniors

Perhaps the main problem for seniors is where on earth did we leave our phones?

A quiet corner for the technology basics (photo credit: WENDY BLUMFIELD)
A quiet corner for the technology basics
(photo credit: WENDY BLUMFIELD)
In the doorway of the printing shop I use for my posters and teaching materials, there was a life-size cardboard stand-up figure of a stereotypical grandmother, complete with a frizzy perm topped by a felt hat, a long dowdy coat and sensible laced-up shoes.
The message under the figure was: Poor Savta can’t cope with the digital age, let us make her an album of her grandchildren’s pictures.
I marched into the manager’s office to protest. All the grandmothers of my acquaintance go to good hairdressers and dress stylishly, albeit not with navel-exposing tank tops. But the issue that really got me steaming was that all the seniors I know are wizards on their computers, smartphones and Kindles.
How would we all (not just seniors) manage without our labor-saving household appliances? Each morning I feel very virtuous as the coffee brews and I switch on the computer, washing machine and dishwasher, and send the robot spinning round the floors. By the time I read the newspaper and drink the coffee, those machines are chugging away. And by the time I deal with the emails and urgent computer work, the machines have finished and I am ready to face the day.
Keeping in touch with old friends and social groups on Facebook, making appointments by email, adjusting the print size on a Kindle – all open new doors for retired citizens, particularly those who need to spend more time at home.
As for those pictures of the grandchildren, how many times do our eyes glaze over as we sit next to a grandparent who insists on swiping an entire album of pictures on her smartphone for you to make appropriate comments of praise? LIKE SO many senior citizens, I did not grow up in the digital age, although my husband worked as a systems analyst from the time computers occupied entire rooms. I am the poet laureate in the family, always with a poem and a camera at the ready to record those special moments, whether they be the kid climbing a tree with a banana in his hand, aptly at the Monkey Park, or the coiffed and smartly dressed family groups at the many bar mitzvas and weddings.
In my first few years of grandmotherhood, I got photos printed, typed out little poems and stories, and literally cut and pasted them onto sheets to be photocopied and bound into albums. In this way, I marked the family holidays, the first days at school and other milestones that needed to be remembered.
By the time we got to the bar mitzvas, the task was made so much easier because the current pictures were on the computer, together with my files of texts, so “cut and paste” became a job taking but a few minutes instead of all the time needed to work with scissors and glue. Special occasions are now celebrated with the presentation to each child of a hardcover album filled with memories from babyhood to the present day. The art of scanning makes it possible to use photos from before the digital camera, and the aforementioned printing shop does the binding.
On other occasions, where a special poem is required, I just add an appropriate picture from my files, print it off and get it laminated so that the recipients can keep it indefinitely.
MY TRANSITION to the computer as a word processor was precipitated by signing a contract for a full-length book with a nine-month deadline, not such a problem as far as the research and writing were concerned, but a chore if I needed to type and retype on a manual typewriter.
I had taught myself to type at the age of eight, when my elder brother bought me a Remington portable. This was in response to my mother’s despair because I was a very messy writer.
At school we were not allowed to use ballpoint pens, so our desks were equipped with inkwells into which we dipped nibbed pens. I used to come home with ink stains all up the sleeves of my school shirt and blazer, and my fingers were permanently colored blue. The problem was exacerbated because most of the girls had plaits, and the boys sitting behind us used to dip the end of our braids in their inkwells – with disastrous results when we flicked at our hair.
My grandfather bought me my first little wooden desk, complete with inkwell.
While other children would draw and paint, I would scribble my stories and poems and store it all in my desk. My mother was vastly relieved when I started using the small typewriter, so at least at home everything was not covered with ink.
Over the years, I graduated through the changing styles and sizes of typewriters.
When signing the book contract, I was considering an electronic typewriter. But just at that time, I was asked to write an article for the Women’s Studies department at the University of Haifa, and the editor nonchalantly asked me to bring a disk.
I had no idea what she was talking about, but my son, who had just started studying at the Technion, invited me over to use his computer. I fell in love at first sight. I could type even faster because there was no pressure on the keys. If I made a mistake, I did not have to drown the pages with Tippex, the local version of white-out; I just deleted, copied or moved.
The next revelation was when I took the disk to the university, where the editor wanted to copy it into her own computer.
Assuming this could take an hour or so, I said I would go to the library and return.
She gave me a confused look, placed the disk in the computer, pressed a couple of keys and returned it to me. I was sold.
With the advance I got for my book, I bought my first computer and printer, and surprisingly quickly, I mastered the simple Einstein word-processing program. I would call my husband at work if I had a problem, and was amazed that he could talk me through it. (At one stage, one of my chapters opened in what looked like Chinese, but he managed to coax it back into its correct format.) IN THE same way one waited for the postman’s knock and looked forward to letters and postcards, I open my emails with anticipation.
The ability to delete the garbage with one click makes it more pleasurable to receive messages and greetings from friends and colleagues, get news of impending visits, and respond to invitations.
(Perhaps because of this development, as well as the fact that we don’t have a competent communications minister, the Israel Postal Company has deteriorated to an abysmal level, making computer communications even more relevant.) For many seniors, the Internet provides an open door to whatever subject interests them. While there is a lot of incorrect information if people try to diagnose themselves, there is a wealth of material available to those who are more confined to the house. Watching a TV program and then looking on the Internet for details of the story and the actors, or downloading favorite songs and acts, all stimulate the memory.
When I was a teenager at my first dance, the song of the moment was “Sway.” I particularly liked the young man who danced with me, so “Sway” become my favorite dance tune. At a landmark senior birthday, when my kids were putting together a PowerPoint presentation, they made some inquiries from my oldest friends, actually acknowledging that I did have a life before they were born. To my delight and surprise, the background music of that presentation was “Sway.”
There are many mind-stimulating games available on the computer, such as chess and Scrabble, crosswords and Sudoku. The staff of the Memory and Cognitive Clinic at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa recommend computer programs that are specially designed to improve memory and concentration. Indeed, many day centers run for elderly and disabled citizens offer computer instruction and introduce participants to a tool they possibly never used before.
While Facebook can reunite people, it is important that seniors do not rely solely on this for their social contacts. In the same way as teenagers get hooked and spend their leisure time clicking while neglecting their “real life” friends, some seniors need encouragement and assistance to get out of the house and join friends for concerts, meetings, films, the theater or just sitting around at a pleasant coffeehouse. In the same way we bemoan that kids spend too much time on their computers and don’t play outside anymore, seniors do need to nourish their bodies by going swimming or to the gym, taking a walk along the beach, or doing ballroom or folk dancing.
MOST SENIORS were brought up to love the experience of reading, not just for the content, but for the feel and smell of a printed book. I remember the anticipation I felt as a child of unwrapping a new book and sniffing the smell of the new paper.
My father had a beautiful set of English classics bound in leather, and I have never forgotten the mustiness of those books in our dining room, where they were kept.
Walking into a store selling old books today, if I get a whiff of that smell, I start sniffing like an addict looking for glue.
However, e-readers like the Kindle are a marvel for older people who find it difficult to hold a heavy book or whose eyesight cannot cope with small print. With the Kindle, the font can be enlarged. It is user-friendly and so light that it can be kept in a handbag or even a pocket for that train ride or wait at the dentist’s, or just for reading in bed.
My personal nemesis is probably the smartphone.
I was quite happy with my old mobile, which made and received calls and messages, and also had a simple camera. But when it aged, I was persuaded by a special offer from Cellcom, which said I would never regret advancing to a smartphone.
The advantage is that one can use email and Internet services from anywhere, but for making calls and texting messages, the touch-screen is too delicate, and I seem to take an unreasonable amount of time using the back-spacer to correct errors. While my grandchildren, with their thin, nimble fingers, are constantly tapping away, I find the keyboard far too small and keep hitting the wrong letters.
My digital camera is better quality than the one in my smartphone, and many of the applications are of no use to me. As for Waze, anybody approaching Haifa is directed through the Carmel Tunnels whether they want to or not.
Hands-free car phones have their uses, too, although I find it very hard to concentrate on a conversation while driving. But for finding the family during a picnic in the forest or a friend for meeting in town, and even reporting on delays caused by traffic jams, they are invaluable.
Perhaps the main problem for seniors is where on earth did we leave our phones? How many times have I called myself from my land line in order to find my smartphone under the pillow or in the laundry bin, among the newspapers – or even on one occasion in the fridge, in a bag of oranges? Senior moments. But technology certainly opens new doors.