Elders and Technology: An Awkward Pairing

This morning I received an email with an attachment from my out-of-town brother-in-law (BIL) that was actually for my mother-in-law (MIL). 

So if it’s an email for MIL, you ask, why did BIL send it to you

Why you silly twit, I answer.  Because MIL is elderly of course.  She doesn’t know how to email.

MIL has a computer.  In fact she has three; two desktops she bought for herself and a laptop gifted from her son.  But none of them are presently hooked up because, even though she really wants to learn how to email, every time she’s tried so far she hit a wall.  She got overwhelmed and quit, turned off the service again, because computers and technology are just not coming easy for her.

As pretty much everyone knows by now, there’s a huge generational divide where technology is concerned.  My kids, on the one hand, use electronic devices like prosthetics.  They’re physically attached to their laptops, cellphones (with bluetooth, GPS, browsing, cameras, youtube, and wifi capability plus downloaded ringtones and extensive music libraries),  gaming systems, and complex entertainment systems with blue ray and live streaming (and accompanying battery of remotes.)  They communicate via texting, email, IM, Facebook, Twitter, et al, and…once every ten thousand years when the planets all align…they’ll even make a phone call.   They also both have dedicated closets for the graveyard of outdated devices they’ve abandoned over the years.

MIL also has a dedicated closet but she’s abandoned her devices for a completely different reason; she couldn’t figure out how to make them work.  She’s not unusual in this way.  My father and father-in-law (FIL) can’t use most modern technological devices either.  I also ran into this problem a lot when I was working with hospice.  Most of the elderly people I cared for not only couldn’t use a computer, they often struggled just to navigate a simple telephone voice mail system.  Sometimes, at their age, it was because hearing had become a problem.  But even those who could hear perfectly well seemed to have trouble.  They resented the fact that they couldn’t just talk to a person.

This morning it occurred to me that, where the new, modern world of technology and electronics are concerned, most of our elders are like first generation immigrants from the old world.  They come from a different set of customs, a slower pace, a different, simpler world view.  The new language is proving to be sophisticated and difficult for them, and they often get lost trying to navigate a landscape that can seem foreign and incomprehensible.

MIL (almost eighty) is from the old country so emailing, as part of the new language, has been hard for her to learn.  Still, I admire her tremendously because at least she wants to learn.  She tries.  She’s frustrated and overwhelmed by it all, but even so, she’s still tickled by the prospect of laptops, and camera phones, and digital picture frames, and thin, sexy, LCD TVs.  She takes risks and buys gadgets she doesn’t know how to use, hoping she’ll be able to figure them out and sometimes she even does.  Little by little, she really is making progress.

So BIL and I, and all of her children, continue to try and be patient and supportive.  We’re the second, bridge generation, straddling the divide between our parents’ world and that of our children.  Hopefully, in helping our elders, we’ll be able to sort out and harvest the best of their world, then preserve it, adapt it, and pass it down to our kids to be folded into the new one.

That’s what I’m hoping for anyway, because I think an evolving world with deep roots is the strongest, most nourishing kind.

The Favorite, by Georgios Iakovidis (1890)

(Image from Wikipedia)

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

5 responses

  1. Very sweet, Dia! Sometimes I think our elderly are way better off not having to deal with technology. They share in different and, often, more meaningful ways.

    • There really are some beautiful perspectives and ways of doing things from the pre-techy world that are not only worth preserving, I think they’re critical for our long term health. I certainly don’t envy the older generation for having to deal with changes as massive as those in the last three decades, that’s for sure! But isn’t there always a “best of” and “worst of” about anything? There were some really great things about a low-tech world, but it wasn’t all golden by any means. (i.e. think of medical options alone. Most of our elderly are pretty glad to have the new possibilities.) And same for the world we have now. You and I couldn’t even be having this conversation back when!
      Personally, I wouldn’t want to have to choose between ages. I want the best of both, which is why I love listening to the older generation and absorbing as much as I can of their stories before we lose them.

  2. I love the metaphor of digital immigrants! How true. And we, being the bridge generation.

    It is true, a drawer full of old, handwritten letters is a precious and often vital resource to the past. I wonder how much digital history and personal mediation will be lost to future generations. BUT, I could no longer function without a word processor at the very least. No one would be able to read my hand-written meditations…I can’t even read my grocery lists!

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