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How to Talk to Your Parents About Tech

Four elderly people taking a selfie
Four elderly people taking a selfie


Last month we got a visit from my 85-year-old mother-in-law, Ena. To commemorate the occasion, she had us all pose for a group selfie she took with her Kindle Fire tablet.

Ena is also pretty Net savvy. When she got into a dispute with a car mechanic whom she believed was trying to cheat her, Ena posted a scathing online review of his company. The next day he called her to apologize.

“He thought he was dealing with some old doddering woman,” she wrote in an email. “He forgot we are all a bit more savvy than him in some respects.”

Read more: How to Keep an Eye on Your Aging Parents Without Annoying the Crap Out of Them

But Ena isn’t your typical 85-year-old. According to the Pew Internet Research Project, more than three-quarters of Americans age 65-plus carry cellphones, and six out of 10 are online. That’s not bad, but it still falls far short of averages for all adults (91 and 86 percent, respectively). And of Americans over 80, nearly two-thirds are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

That’s a shame. Technology can help your aging relatives live fuller, more independent lives for far longer.

But only if you persuade them to use it. And that’s not always easy.

Age against the machine
As you grow older, using a computer or a smartphone might not be so easy. Screens are hard to read; typing is difficult. Even operating a mouse can be challenging at first.

“People underestimate the dexterity required for a double-click or the nuances of swiping and tapping,” says Brenda Rusnak, producer of the documentary Cyber-Seniors. “Then there’s the knowledge gap. We take the meaning of words like ‘icon’ for granted. Seniors want to know what an icon is and why it’s called that.”

In Cyber-Seniors, teen mentors help residents of an assisted living facility in Toronto create Facebook accounts, record YouTube videos, play Minecraft, learn the meaning of acronyms like BFF, and fill out dating site profiles. Watching the seniors open up to what technology has to offer is utterly charming.

In this video excerpt from Cyber-Seniors, 93-year-old Marion K. shows why she is the original Grandsta.

But simply introducing seniors to technology doesn’t always work, Rusnak says. Many lose interest and give up long before they master the intricacies of Instagram or learn how to Google. Here are four ways to keep them in the game.

1. Make tech relevant.
You may have difficulty persuading your parents to use a cellphone instead of a landline or to get their newspaper delivered via pixels instead of paper. But you’ll have an easier time once you explain how using a computer will let them stay in touch with their grandchildren.

Read more: Adorable Grandparents Are Accidentally Tagging Grandmaster Flash in Their Facebook Posts

“My mother is in her 70s, and she was motivated to learn to use an iMac so she could see pictures of her grandkids on Facebook,” says Dave Gilbert, CEO of Evermind, which makes wireless monitoring technology for seniors. “You need to start with the goal they’re trying to achieve and figure out if technology is the best way to reach it.”

Evermind monitoring system
Evermind monitoring system

Evermind monitors the appliances your parents use every day, like the coffee pot or TV. If an appliance goes dark for too long, you get an alert.

2. Make it useful.
Odds are your parents don’t line up outside the Apple Store waiting for the latest i-device. That’s because, when it comes to tech, seniors care more about functionality than status, says Ignacio Fanlo of Live!y, which makes wireless sensors that allow seniors to live independently.

“Older people are much more practical,” Fanlo says. “Technology needs to help them with the tangible things they do every day. There needs to be something in it for them as well as their kids.”

Live!y Safety Watch
Live!y Safety Watch

The Live!y Safety Watch allows seniors to call for help when they need it. It’s also a waterproof fitness tracker with a six- to nine-month battery.

So when Live!y recently introduced a smartwatch for seniors that allows them to call for medical help by pushing a button, designers were careful to add features like step counting and medication reminders to give it more day-to-day appeal.

3. Make it simple and beautiful.
“A lot of products aimed at seniors have been big, beige, and boring,” says Katy Fike, co-founder of Aging2.0, which funds startups that create products for aging boomers, like Live!y and Stitch, a social network for people age 50-plus. “Today there’s more emphasis on good design, as millions of boomers ease past age 65.”

There are also more devices aimed specifically at oldsters. Earlier this month the AARP introduced the $189 RealPad, an 8-inch Android tablet designed with America’s 40 million seniors in mind.

AARP's RealPad
AARP's RealPad

AARP’s RealPad features a simplified interface with larger icons, more readable fonts, and lots of video tutorials for tech novices.

The best part? It comes with free lifetime support available 24/7, says CIO Terry Bradwell. In other words, you’ll no longer be forced to play support technician for your parents — for this product, at least.

4. Get help.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go it alone there, either. The AARP holds free hands-on technology workshops in major cities across the country that are wildly popular, Bradwell says. Sites like Senior Planet offer helpful guides for “aging with attitude,” including tutorials titled “Siri for Seniors” and “How to get started on Instagram.” There are probably fine tech tutors at your local senior center, too.

Cyber-Seniors director Saffron Cassaday hopes her film will inspire other teen/elder mentoring programs to spring up across the continent.

In fact, you might already have a program just like this in your house. If your children are old enough, let them be the ones who drag your parents kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Nobody can resist her own grandkids.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at