Back in My Day: Old dogs can learn new tricks

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To imagine a world without internet or smartphones can be a bit of a doozy for millenials as well as members of Generation Z and the now-growing Generation Alpha. At the same time, a world where I could also walk outside without seeing the Bladerunner 2049 filter over my head or worrying about exposure to an incredibly deadly virus would also be a challenge to picture.

Probably best to stay inside for the time being — take the hint, partygoers. 

That being said, the coronavirus pandemic and virtual workspace have generated an exponential increase in collective screen time worldwide. And while your professor is still trying to figure out how to set up breakout rooms for your group discussion — or lack thereof — let’s break down this idea of the virtual space specifically in the context of older adults. 

With all these seniors stuck inside, this technological boom of sorts has forced older adults to begin using the plethora of gadgets and gizmos that the “kids these days” use — or has it?

It’s easy to assume your parents, grandparents, teachers and older people fall under this umbrella stereotype of cluelessness or ignorant bliss when it comes to technology. Developmental changes that come with age do not necessarily include a growing distaste for technology, rather, this stereotype stems from the ageist image of older adults being confused, frail and “stuck in their ways.” In fact, the number of seniors using technology has been increasing at a good pace years before the pandemic took place.

The Pew Research Center divides the current generation of older Americans — those 65 and older — into two simple groups: those who are involved and aware of technology’s benefits and those who are disconnected from the digital world. 

“So, Lois,” you say. “There are clearly older adults who outright dislike technology. How do you explain that second group of older adults? It can’t just be that they want to learn about technology but just aren’t sure how to go about it.” Well, actually, yes, that is the case for many older adults. 

The dilemma that exists between older adults and technology clearly doesn’t manifest in the stereotype that older adults hate or despise new gadgets — if anything, they want to learn about these appliances and how to use them for their own benefit just like their younger counterparts. But when you combine a quickly changing environment with a lack of knowledge in navigating the vast waters of the internet, you can piece together the puzzle that many companies from Silicon Valley are just now figuring out. Let’s do some gerontology mythbusting.

Older people enjoy using social media, with about a third of them in the United States reporting that they are active on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. As mentioned earlier, younger seniors were shown to be more active than older seniors, but the message still stands. Additionally, over two-thirds of older adults have said that they use the internet quite often, whether that be to skim the news or keep up with popular figures. I’d be failing here if I didn’t mention the multitude of older adult influencers on TikTok and Instagram such as Lynn Davis of “Cooking with Lynja” and fashion designer Jenny Kee.

For some older adults, the issue of privacy plays a massive role in determining their receptiveness to using a platform like Facebook or an appliance such as Alexa, both of which have had their own respective privacy concerns in the past few years. Here, it really becomes about education and teaching ways to balance efficiency and security.

News sources have taken to social media platforms to showcase breaking news and daily or weekly highlights. I have to admit, as co-chief copy editor, there have been times when even my own older relatives referenced some “sketchy” or “fishy” websites in our family group conversations. While we all probably had that teacher (or teachers) who warned us about using Wikipedia because it could be publicly edited, an abundance of this generation’s older adults never had that conversation — not because they didn’t care, but because it was not something that they had to really concern themselves with at the time. 

And while all of this is happening, some of our friends in the tech sector seem to have decided that simplicity is completely overrated: seriously, who needs that many buttons on the damn TV remote? To digital natives, maybe something like setting up Apple TV or bluetooth headphones can be incredibly mundane. But for folks who may not be so familiar with tech terms or figuring out labeless buttons, these tasks can feel like puzzles where all the pieces are the same color. 

Organizations geared toward the education of older adults on technology continue to grapple with new ways to promote outreach and involvement. For instance, USC’s GeroTech — one of the few groups on campus that strives to promote intergenerational events on technology — works with the Emeriti Center and other older adults in the local community who are interested in making the best of the appliances and platforms they have at home. Intergenerational phone chains like the one at USC also have been an incredibly helpful tool in providing company for older adults, even if it may be through a simple five-minute chat.

It is also important to realize that while older adults may experience subtle physiologic changes with age — vision and hearing impairment decline and tremors, among other things — these effects do not necessarily entail cognitive decline and should each be accounted for in the development of technology. Additionally, we have to realize that while a majority of research papers and data simply account for “older adults,” that the group does not simply allude to wheelchair-rocking grandmas and grandpas but also includes active and outgoing seniors along with some older members of Generation X now experiencing some physiological changes related to aging.

Issues pertaining to social isolation due to the inability to connect with family and friends in person have detrimentally affected the older adult population. This makes it all the more important to help streamline and shorten the learning curve when it comes to figuring out new pieces of technology. 

Even when it comes to how we perceive technology visually, we scarcely see any commercials from Apple or Microsoft with grandma or grandpa browsing Youtube or TikTok. In fact, AARP found that less than 5% of images listed under the search term “older people” show them with any form of technology. Simply put, if your interpretation of grandma and grandpa using Alexa is anything similar to the Amazon Alexa Silver skit on Saturday Night Live, we got some work to do. 

At the end of the day, we’re going to be face-to-face with the iPhone 100 down the road, whether we like it or not, reminiscing about when we got our first iPhone and saying, “Back in my day…”

Lois Angelo is a sophomore writing about the intersections of gerontology and social issues. He is also co-chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Back In My Day,” runs every other Tuesday.