COVID-19: Seniors Are Plugging Into And Turning On Technology Now More Than Ever

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how older adults view technology from a means of entertainment to a way of living.

(Courtesy Tobey Dichter/Generations on Line)

Words by Viola Brown

In 2020, the mandate for social distancing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention due to COVID-19 left many older adults in Philadelphia unable to leave their homes to attend religious services or senior center activities. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how older adults use technology. The introduction and implementation of the COVID-19 vaccine are causing more seniors to reengage back into their communities, but electronic devices are still necessary. Facebook and Zoom have become the medium to attend events and meetings, and social media is often used to reconnect with family and friends. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how older adults view technology from a means of entertainment to a way of living.  

“Since retiring from working at a law firm, I have kept myself updated with technology,” Irby said. “My family sometimes directs me to different things on the computer. I like using my iPad more than my computer because it’s smaller and compact. I use my iPad to learn new things, research, and play games.”

Before COVID-19 and social distancing, many seniors viewed technology positively and incorporated digital technology into their everyday lives. Fully 58% of adults ages 65 and older say technology has had a mostly positive impact on society. In contrast, according to Pew Research, roughly three-quarters of internet-using seniors say they go online daily, and nearly one in 10 go online almost constantly.

Glory Perry, age 74, is one such senior who regularly uses technology.  

“I text family and friends, post on Facebook, and use Google for researching information,” Perry said. “I especially like the talk feature. It makes it easy to find what I am looking for when writing speeches on Word. In addition, I create tickets programs and use the drawing features. I own a laptop and an iPad, but I prefer to use my laptop. I watch Netflix and YouTube sometimes, but I have cable and watch programs on my television.” 

Although many seniors have learned how to use a smartphone to get on social media, a percentage of older adults have fallen through the cracks in technological advancement. Around two in five seniors indicate that they have a physical or health condition that prevents them from entirely using electronics. The streamlined design, small screens, and print make it difficult due to physical limitations and age-related eyesight problems like presbyopia, cataracts, and glaucoma, according to Senior Health 365

Thelma Jordan, age 79, shared her experience during this pandemic.

“Facebook, I do not use it much, and I do not like it,” Jordan said. “I don’t place anything on it, but I have an account because my church services are there. I use my computer to learn new things. It’s like an encyclopedia, and anything you want to know, you can get it in seconds. I am not on my computer much; I mostly talk on the phone or text.” 

Living on a fixed income is a factor as money is spent on necessities, and buying the latest gadget or upgrading to a new smart TV is not considered economically sound. Children and grandchildren try to keep their parents and grandparents up to date, but many do not have the time or patents to teach them how the product works.

Gail Allen, age 68, has also found it necessary to be technology proficient in today’s world.

“Although I retired, I went back to work full-time, teaching part-time,” Allen said. “I work from home, attend conferences on Zoom, and check my emails daily to keep up to date on what’s going on at the office. I haven’t had a vacation in a long time, so I am enjoying my time off. Since retiring as a business analyst, I am not as technologically savvy, but I still use Microsoft Office. I’m constantly on my cellphone and texting acronyms like “ttyl, lol, btw” to my children and grandchildren. They are surprised I understand what they are saying.” 

Generations on Line (GoL) offers computer training programs that foster and promote Internet literacy, access, and skills to the elderly. Besides PC and tablet training, it offers extended learning through a program they developed called Sip and Swipe Cafe. 

(Courtesy Tobey Dichter/Generations on Line)

“The goal of GoL is to remove three barriers that seniors face when approaching technology, access, skill, and intimidation,” Tobey Gordon Dichter, founder and CEO of Generations on Line, said. “First, GoL created, tested, and developed on-screen tutorials that guide a senior step-by-step with age-friendly instructions in large and plain English, respectfully and clearly. The program has trained nearly 100,000 older adults, most of whom had never touched a computer — although some were the first to work with IBM punch card technology,” stated Dichter.

Before the .com boom and voice-activated assistance, seniors were introduced to the beginnings of technological advancement over 40 years ago, but it was not a priority. The technology consisted of having a landline phone in the home, pay phones on street corners, movie theaters, and listening to music on vinyl records, cassette tapes, and later CDs. Technology at its basic was for either entertainment or used in the workforce.

“I was a keypunch operator and inputted data into the computer system,” Irby said. “These computers created by IBM punched small holes into cards that represented data and instructions. These holes were codes that identified specific information about a customer to data trends within a company.”

According to a recent AARP national survey, older Americans are increasingly drawn to new technology. Furthermore, the AARP also found adults aged 50 and older increasingly use smartphones, smart TVs, computers, wearable devices, tablets to maintain social connections and find information. Still, they often do not take full advantage of their devices, and they are concerned about privacy issues online. As COVID-19 plagues Philadelphia, many seniors have been forced to learn online banking, virtual communications, and online shopping.

Programs in Philadelphia can help seniors stay updated with new technological trends. Senior centers offer computer classes and provide a friendly and encouraging atmosphere to learn gaming to advance computer skills. The Philadelphia Corporation of Aging is a resource for senior centers throughout Philadelphia to locate places that teach computer learning.

For seniors who like to learn from the privacy of their homes, the Free Library of Philadelphia offers free digital learning in English and Spanish. A library card is the only requirement to have access. Easy-to-follow tutorials on Microsoft Excel, Word, Office, internet basics, social media, foreign language, and other programs.

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