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Tackling New Tech In The Golden Years


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman. Up next, going digital in the golden years. Fans of the movie "Babe" might remember this scene, which is coming - coming at you soon. Essentially in this scene, the main character's wife gets a fax machine from a daughter, and while it was the '90s, so that's why - well let's hear it.



MAGDA SZUBANSKI: (As Mrs. Hoggett) I've got a washing machine, a radio, a new alarm clock. I think it's a lovely fax machine, darling, but can't you use it?

ZOE BURTON: (As the Hoggetts' Daughter) We already have one, Mom. That's the whole idea. We can send faxes to each other. Now don't be afraid of it just because it's new.

LICHTMAN: Oh, the '90s. So while technologies come and go, the sentiment may be timeless: If you, the parent, would only learn to use this new device, smartphone, iPad, computer, insert gadget of choice here, communicating with you would be a breeze. So why haven't more older adults signed on?

According to a recent Pew survey, just over half of Americans 65 and older are online. Compare that to 18- to 29-year-olds. Over 90 percent of them are online. You can guess the reasons why: cost, a steep learning curve. But if you've been thinking about trying out one of these devices, or maybe your kids gave one, or maybe you've been wanting to help your grandparent go digital, we have some practical advice for you today, experts to tell you how to get started and even how to MacGyver those devices to make them older-adult friendly.

And we want to hear from you. If you're an older adult and would like to share your story or trying successfully or not to use this new technology or to get a parent or grandparent online, give us a call, 1-800-989-8255, that's 1-800-989-TALK. And if you're on Twitter, you can tweet us @scifri.

Now let me introduce my guests. Tom Kamber is the founder and executive director of OATS, that stands for Older Adults Technology Service. Check out their website at And Dr. Kamber here is in our New York studio. Thanks for coming in today.

TOM KAMBER: Thanks for having me, Flora.

LICHTMAN: And Therese Willkomm, is an assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of New Hampshire. She's also the author of her newest book, which is "Assistive Technology Solutions in Minutes," too, which is coming out June 1. She's also the director of New Hampshire's State Assistive Technology Program with the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.

And the book I mentioned has a whole chapter on 50 ways to adapt your iPad. Thanks for joining us today.


LICHTMAN: Tom Kamber, why does it matter if older people get online or use a smartphone? Are we just imposing sort of a lifestyle choice, or is there a meaningful difference to quality of life, do you think?

KAMBER: I think it matters a lot to older people to be adopting technologies, and there's certainly some people that are by choice not going online and don't want to become digitally plugged in. But for the vast majority of older people that we've worked with, they're finding that access to things like, you know, ecommerce or services online or, you know, any kinds of things related to their health or their social connectivity are all mediated by technology.

So for people who don't adopt, they're blocked in a lot of their basic life processes now.

LICHTMAN: What are some of the barriers for seniors?

KAMBER: The principal barriers for seniors are first of all just figuring out what platforms to work with. There are so many different, myriad things to choose from. And so trying to decide what's appropriate for them and kind of matching up what their personal interests are with the right technologies and then finding an appropriate place to learn new devices and technologies.

Sometimes it can take months to get comfortable on a PC or an iPad or a new thing, and people often don't set themselves up or haven't found the right path to do the learning in places where they'll be appropriately supported.

LICHTMAN: Therese Willkomm, has that been your experience, too?

WILLKOMM: Yes, I would agree. But there's also some other challenges. As we get older, we often experience conditions that result in low vision, hearing loss, holding the device, interacting with the device, even conductivity with our fingers, hitting the device. And so while it's a great universally designed tool, there are some additional adaptations that often need to be made and particularly individuals who experience disabilities, perhaps maybe a stroke, again arthritis, blindness, low vision, et cetera. And - but it's a fabulous, fabulous tool.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I can imagine it would be - I mean, I find it hard to use touch screens sometimes, and I have very good vision and very tiny fingers with pretty good dexterity. I can imagine that it would be challenging.

WILLKOMM: Absolutely.

LICHTMAN: And there ways to adapt these devices? Do the devices need to be designed in a different way?

WILLKOMM: Well, it all depends. One of the first things we look at it is simple adaptations, for example holding of an iPad and even holding of an iPhone. If we're looking at holding of an iPad, there's a variety of different stands, different laptops. We find that a lot of seniors like their - what we call a nest, it could be a recliner chair, an armchair where the remote control, their water, everything's all set up.

When you add an iPad to that mix, it's just another item, and your hands get tired holding it. And then you're trying to put it on your lap, you have issues with glare and also the need to often have that iPad closer to you so you can see it.

And so there's some real simple adaptations that can be made using corrugated plastic. We have different stands that we can make for like two bucks worth of material. Things that we use - hands-free solutions so that if you can't, or your arms get tired of holding the iPad, something that will hold it up in the right position for you.

Even with - as far as the buttons. One of the nice things with the iPad and the iPhone 5, with Siri, of being able to push that button and being able to speak into your iPad, being able to say what's the temperature going to be today or find - open NPR, and how Siri will take over.

That whole thing on controlling our environment, controlling the use of the iPad just with our voice, and that's just a few of the different ways to, you know, to accommodate because the tiny little buttons, you're right, they're harder to see.

The other thing is with vision, many individuals who have lost their eyesight, how do you see all the pictures, all the graphics that are on the iPad? And yes the iPad came out with voiceover to read texts to you, but there's so much graphical images on the iPad and creating tactile graphic overlaps that lay over the glass that you can simply feel the lines, feel the images with your figures to be able to interact with.

LICHTMAN: Like a sticker?

WILLKOMM: Well, stickers I use, I use these tiny little stickers when somebody has low vision and for contrast. That black glass, it's really hard to find the hold button or find the volume button or power on/off button, and just by getting high-contrast little stickers to place over the home button or right above the volume button I think really helps everybody trying to figure out where's those buttons to turn the volume up or down. That's something, you know, very simple that anybody could add.

LICHTMAN: I guess this is why you've been called the MacGyver of assisted technologies. It seems like you have a lot of tricks at your disposal.

WILLKOMM: Yes, and ways to hold the iPad or hang the iPad on a variety of different appliances such as using just a simple, 75-cent padded industrial twist tie and sliding it underneath one of the cases for the iPad and sliding to over a chair, the back rest. There's just, you know, just a ton of different things that can be done to make that more accessible.

And then sometimes with arthritis or when your hand kind of just rests on the glass, and unfortunately if your hand is resting on the glass on the iPad, you're going to inadvertently hit buttons that you didn't want to hit. And just taking a knit glove from the dollar store, and we find is if you cut off the tip of the middle finger on the knit glove, then the hand can rest on the glass, and then the middle finger can access various interactive points on the iPad without accidentally hitting something that you didn't want to hit with your finger.

And that's something we frequently see people do, and they get really frustrated. They have no idea how they got to a particular screen because they accidentally touched something that they didn't think they were going to touch. Even the accessibility, the reader button that is built in when you do a URL search, you're searching maybe a news article has come up. And in the URL on the top of the screen is a purple reader button that shows up. If you tap on that, what it will do, is it will strip out all the advertisement, and the text will come up.

You can enlarge that to whatever size that you needed. And you can also have it read out loud to you. Just some fabulous things that are coming out now with the iPad and the accessibility features.

LICHTMAN: Tom Kamber, what's your experience been as the best way to teach people who may be reticent or unfamiliar with this technology?

KAMBER: Well, we have a center in New York, the Senior Planet Exploration Center, and we've got about 2,500 people coming in every calendar quarter, just walking off the street for programming. It's on 25th Street if anybody is in the city they can come visit it between - it's on 127 West 25th. And when people come in for iPad training, many of them are - their barriers that that they're experiencing as older people start with the social barriers for people. They start with the barriers of being an older individual who may have - not really have connections with their own friends and peers that are using these devices.

So they haven't been able to observe people succeeding with them. They haven't been able to see what people are getting out of the use of these new tools. And so one of the first things that we really need to do is work with them around understanding the value and understanding what you're going to do with a device. So before people get to the notion of whether they need an assistive tool of some sort, the vast majority of older folks actually can just take a regular iPad and learn how to use it with the appropriate support.

And there certainly is a group that needs that kind of assistive support that Therese was talking about, but most of the people that come to us are really saying I don't even know what this thing does. You know, I've been hearing about email, and I'm hearing about W-W-W this. Can you show me and get us started? And so we work with them for - we have a 20-session class for iPad basics. We're also doing a social engagement version of that in partnership with the AARP Foundation in Washington, D.C.

And what we're doing with folks is really getting them comfortable with the device itself, learning how to do things like just build up your contacts in the contact field and connect with your friends and family so that you can just send an email, or you can do a video chat with somebody, just kind of getting them over that hurdle is critical for most people to get started.

WILLKOMM: And that social engagement piece is so huge, about being able to connect with family and friends using FaceTime is so powerful on having real-life conversations, real-time conversations. And one of the most creative things we did was for an individual that has Parkinson's, who's in an assisted-living facility, she has a very difficult time lifting her head, she has a hard time leaving the assisted-living facility, but wants to take tours of the new nursing department that we have at the university.

And so what we did was we mounted an iPhone on top of a bicycle helmet and sent a student around, and she could say move to the left, let me see what changes have been made with perhaps the new I.V. pole, move to the right and so real-time. Or perhaps she wants to go on an adventure, kayaking, and being able to say I think I heard a pileated woodpecker, can you paddle to the left or paddle to the right.

LICHTMAN: So like a surrogate explorer.

WILLKOMM: Yes, it's a virtual, yeah, explorer.

LICHTMAN: Let me give - let me do - take an ID break here. I'm Flora Lichtman, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I want to go to the phones. Let's go to Andy(ph) in Manhattan.

ANDY: Well, they got me, honey. Hi.


ANDY: Hello.

LICHTMAN: Go ahead.

ANDY: Love your show.


ANDY: I just want to say that my dad is 94 years old, and he's a veteran of World War II. And about three years ago, I gave him an old Macintosh computer that I had because I recognized the desire in him to continue learning, and he's always had that. And since then, he's able to get online and read his Google news and also get CDs and create iTunes lists. He also has been making videos of his life, his stories from the war, his stories growing up in the Depression.

And the one thing I could say is I try to create analogies that he can understand. He was a mechanic. And so when I talk about the Windows and things, I talk about opening up folders like opening up different - using different tools, things that connect to his life, not to try to have him learn all the new technology, you know, the words, but connected to things he already knows so that that learning curve is less. And he just can - and also to be available for his calls.

Sometimes, he'll open up, and he said I got all these screens all over the place. What can I do? And then, little by little, one step at a time, I walked him through, and he calms down, and he actually continues to learn.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, that's interesting.

ANDY: It also helped me to connect to him too in a way that I never had before, in a very intense intimate way.

LICHTMAN: Thank you, Andy, for calling. That's a great comment.

ANDY: Thank you.

LICHTMAN: So does that sound right to you, getting rid some of this jargon as a way to help people get online?

KAMBER: Yeah, that really reflects the kind of experience we've been having with older adults in our classes. The - one of the things that Andy was talking about that really strikes me here, is that when you work with older individuals around technology, it's not about being a technology expert. You know, people often say, oh, you know, I needed somebody to teach me how to use an iPad or do email. And so they go to - try to find somebody with a computer science degree. And really what you want is somebody who is much like Andy here who enjoys the experience of talking and being patient with an older person on their learning track and their learning pace, and can relate it to the things that older people need.

I mean this notion of relevance is so powerful and so important for older learners. Many of whom feel really alienated by the technology and the way that we market it and design it. And so being able to relate it to something that somebody cares about, both tells that person that it's something that they can engage with, but also makes it clear to the older person who often lives in a sort of ageist environment that you're paying attention to them and that you know what they care about. And that creates a really positive learning feedback dynamic and they make progress.

LICHTMAN: And what's that point about how it's a way to have a new relationship or to keep in touch in a new way? That seems very powerful.

KAMBER: It is. And one of the best parts about my jobs is really that, you know, technology for us is really a path to a sort of opportunity for really socially engaging with older people and honestly enriching our own lives. You know, I've been doing this for nine years at OATS, and working so much with it, and it's just such a blast. I went into the center today and a woman was showing me that she just sold something on Etsy, and it just changed my experience to do that kind of work with someone.

LICHTMAN: That's wonderful, Tom Kamber and Therese Willkomm. Stay with us. We're going to be talking more about this when we come back. 1-800-989-TALK if you have a story you want to share. Don't go away.


LICHTMAN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman.

We're talking this hour about older adults and technology, and we want to hear from you. What is your experience been like going digital? Or have you tried to get your parent or grandparent online? Give us a call, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And let's start up going to the phones. Becky in Norman, Oklahoma, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BECKY: Hi, Flora. I'm a grandparent and I wanted to tell you how I use my new iPhone. When my grandchildren were small, I drove them to elementary school every day. And when they got out of the car, I would say, get good grades and A's, and that's all I think they heard every day. And it was really positive for them. And they're a little older now. They're in middle school and high school, and they take the bus. And they don't have time in the morning, you know, to either make a phone or anything like that, but I have begun texting them. And so I text them in the mornings - get good grades and A's. And on Friday, I text, you know, TGIF, you know, have a great weekend, and they always text me back. And it's neat that we have continued this relationship electronically. And I have a lot of friends that complain, oh, all my grandkids do is text. They send me messages, but I'm not going to use that, and I'm not going to text them back. But I found, you know, that I can really use it positively and I'm enjoying it.

LICHTMAN: Do you hear from them more because you - because you're open to texting?

BECKY: Yes, yes. They will send me more text messages, and they send me photos and my granddaughter put me in Instagram. And they're far more advance than I am, but, yes, they're teaching me a lot.


LICHTMAN: Tom Kamber, did you have something you wanted to add?

KAMBER: Yeah. I love the story. You know, my daughter, Phoebe, gets to the Brooklyn New School here in New York, and we do a lot of texting back and forth as well. And one of the things that we've explored with our older learners at the Senior Planet Center is how they used text to supplement other forms of communication.

You know, we do a study a few years ago with an external group that came in to look at the seniors that we're training. And they asked them, what are you using that technology for after you go online? And one senior said was, I am actually still calling my grandkids. I'm still calling my family members, but I'm also emailing and now texting them more. And so it becomes a supplemental way for them to communicate, and it adds another layer of richness to the interaction that people are having. So it's been a, really, a great way for people to kind of flesh out and strengthen that relationship to their family members.



LICHTMAN: Go ahead, Therese.

WILLKOMM: And one of the great things with texting - so let's say you have a hard time on that iPhone finding those letters or typing those letters, now with that built-in microphone right on the keyboard, you can just hit that microphone and that you speak into it and have speech to text. And so it makes it so much faster to do texting without having to hit all those buttons.

LICHTMAN: Talking with Tom Kamber and Therese Willkomm. Let's go back to the phones. Bob in Pleasant Hill, California, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BOB: Thank you. Thank you. So my dad is 80 years old. He is probably the last living accountant who has never used a computer, does all of his work on paper exclusively. Starting in the 1980s, my siblings and I have been buying him computers, buying him software, offering training classes, trying to get him to use the computer and/or the Internet. He absolutely refused it. I don't know whether he's scared of it, whether he has some kind of mental block, whether he's just being stubborn. But I wonder if your experts there have any advice on how to deal with a person like that.

LICHTMAN: Tom Kamber?

KAMBER: Sure. You know, what you're experiencing there is a phenomenon that geriatric specialists call a problem of resilience. A lot of older adults - as people get older, our ability to bounce back from setbacks or kind of recover from things that go wrong diminishes a little bit. You have few resources physically and financially, and even in terms of time.

And so one of the things that may be going on for your dad there, is that he is, you know, he knows that the way he's been doing things for years professionally has been working. He's still able to function with it. And when he looks at the idea of using, you know, QuickBooks or any of these tax preparation devices actually that are online now is something to, you know, he's choosing between different platforms. And so if one platform doesn't work out, he might spend a year or two learning that platform and hundreds of dollars, even thousands of dollars, trying to adopt that - adopt it. And if doesn't go well for him, he doesn't have a lot of years of professional life left to then recover from that and try something different.

And So you need to find ways to reduce the risks for your dad when he's working at those tools, maybe find somebody who also is an older adult who has used those kinds of tools and has a platform that they really like. And give them a chance to try it in a sort of trial basis where he doesn't have to invest a lot of time and money into it to have some kind of success with it just to get him in a mood of learning step by step without having to invest so much. We often underestimate how much anxiety older people have about adopting new things. It take a big investment of time and money.

LICHTMAN: Did that help, Bob?

BOB: Well, you know, the thing is that he was 50 when we started to try to get him to use computers. And since - because of his refusal, he's been unemployed - underemployed for the last 30 years. And I mean, we've never even got to the point of having him sit down at a computer and be willing to turn it on.

KAMBER: Does he use any technology devices at all?

BOB: He has a simple cellphone that he got within the last couple of years, and he watches TV, cable TV, but that's about it.

KAMBER: I think, you know, one of the things that you might try is to pick something where he has a very immediate need. Maybe his phone isn't quite as robust as he'd like it to be or even his cable TV. You know, you can add something like Netflix onto the cable TV and give him a sense that there's - the Internet is connecting to that. So it extends something that he's already using and gives him a kind of small step into technology adoption where you're really working closely with and make sure he has a good, positive experience with that. I think creating momentum and creating at least a little bit of positive feedback makes a difference.

And one other suggestion, I have to say I've never been able to teach my own parents to use technology, and many, many, many people have a hard time learning from their family members. And so bringing in an outsider and giving him an hour a week of technology support from anybody who's just patient and will sit with them is - really can make a big difference for somebody. You might try that route as well.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Bob. In the 20 seconds we have left, is there - are there places people can go if they don't live in New York City? Where should people look, Therese Willkomm, for advice on how to help their parents or if they're an older person themselves and want help using new devices?

WILLKOMM: There is a number of different websites. As far as learning to use new devices and adaptations, every state has a statewide assistive technology program. And so they can look at, you know, within their own state for who's their assistive technology provider. I think Tom's got probably some ideas on just, you know, where they can go learning as far as technology. Tom?

KAMBER: Sure. There are two principal places that people go. And the first place most people look is the library. And the libraries really are the first point of access for so many older people that are trying to learn technologies. And the second area really are the wide range of senior services programs that proliferate throughout states and cities. Every city has a department of senior services.

And I should mention that, you know, we - because of the investment from the Department of Commerce in the stimulus package over the last few years, we've built 3,000 free access, public access computer labs all across the country, not OATS but a program called Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. And here in New York, OATS has built 23 of those, but they're everywhere out there now. So if you call your local city or state government and ask where they might be a free computer lab with the senior services trainings now, there's a lot more out there than there was just a few years ago, and you're likely to find a program right in your community.

LICHTMAN: Well, thank you both for taking time to talk to us today.

KAMBER: Thank you.

WILLKOMM: Thank you.

LICHTMAN: Tom Kamber, the executive director of OATS. That stands for Older Adults Technology Service. And Therese Willkomm is the director of New Hampshire's State Assistive Technology program with the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.