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Economy & Business

Senior moments don't necessarily lead to technical difficulties on computers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 19, 2009 - Everybody seems to have a humorous story about a parent, elderly friend -- or themselves - who fumbled a technology challenge on a PC or a TV remote control. It is a fact that swift-changing technology will leave some people in the dust -- and comfort -- of old hardware and machinery.

And who can blame them, said a computer repairman who makes a living partly on the blunders of his older customers. "Not having grown up with it, it's not second nature to them," said Lars Johnson, owner of SwiftTechs in University City.

One group of seniors who seems up to the challenge of learning to surf the 'net lives in senior living centers, which have found that they need to offer personal computers to meet a growing demand. Much of that demand is driven by children and friends of the elderly who want to send email notes or pictures.

At Tesson Heights Senior Living Community, interest is high among the more active of the 200 residents, who keep four personal computers in the library busy night and day.

"Most of the time all four computers are occupied. And it seems that the interest is growing," said an activity director Linda Knese.

"They are especially interested in email and games. We have a program where they can send and receive emails. Computer solitaire is very popular, but so are interactive games," she said.

Knese said that for many residents it is their first experience with computers, so she has arranged for a computer trainer to come to Tesson once a week. "We've found that's the best way to make it work for people, to get them more comfortable with the computer and to be able to ask any question they might have," she said.

Knese said about half of the residents who are able use the computers in the community room. And some residents, she said, have PCs in their rooms.

A popular addition to the online offerings at Tesson is a program that allows residents to email handwritten or typed notes or photos to friends and relatives.

Knese said the program, called Caregram by its South Dakota manufacturer of the same name, "lets them experience all the benefits of email without needing to know how to use a computer." She said there is no cost for the service.

As time goes by, she expects an increase in new residents who will be able to function well on personal computers, a development that bodes well for retailers and repair companies alike.

Indeed, for many who have not chosen to or had to learn computers, older people are "absolutely are more technically challenged" than Johnson's younger customers.

SwiftTechs makes house calls to repair personal computers. Johnson said about 40 percent of his calls relate to viruses. The rest of the problems are a mixed bag of problems and glitches, of which senior citizens have a large share.

"I think they have a lack of knowledge of how all the pieces of the computer fit together - that's one thing - and also there's a sense of a little fear for older folks, like they're going to break it," he said.

Johnson, who defines older persons as being above age 50, has tailored personal computers owned by the technically challenged to make them easier to use, by arranging several functions "under one button." By the time he revamps these PCs toward ease of operation, "they're easier to use than most TV remotes."

Johnson has good reason to take care of these older customers, saying they account for about a quarter of his business and are likely to grow, especially as consumers try to hold onto their old PCs instead of buying new ones during the economic downturn. But he said he cautions customers that "there's a threshold where it doesn't make sense to repair" because the cost to fix would exceed the cost of buying a new PC.

Dennis Heisler, a manager at Computerease, agreed with Johnson, boiling down his take on older customers and technology with three words: "They hate computers."

At Computer Problem Busters, a technician answering the phone said a manager could not come to the phone because "he's working with an older gentleman at this very moment."

Computer retailers have not found a difference between older and younger customers, because once the "buy" decision has been made, the research has been done and the understanding is high.

"There seems to be no difference at all in the technological expertise of my younger and older customers," said a retailer in Florissant.

Resources

- Go to the public library for books and periodicals that can help beginners understand personal computers and related technology. Ask the librarian.

- The city's Community Education Program offers computer classes at many locations. For more information, call 314-231-3720.

- An Ohio-based publisher - Web Wise Seniors Inc. - specializes in computer and technology books written exclusively for "individuals over the age of 50 who want to learn basic computer skills." Its titles include "Basic Computing for Beginners," "Basic Internet for Beginners," "Microsoft Word for Beginners" and "Email: the Basics."

All the books are published with large print, and the company says it uses simple, everyday language for ease of understanding. You can reach Web Wise by email (larry@webwiseseniors.com ), toll-free phone (1-866-232-7032) or regular mail (Web Wise Seniors | 305 Woodstock Rd., Eastlake, Ohio 44095

Jim Orso is a freelance journalist.

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