Archive for the ‘seniors’ Category.

Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #4

I should probably pause here to point out that there is wide variation among older adults’ abilities, skills and experiences. Because aging is such a highly individualized process, the older a population group, the greater the differences will be among the group’s individuals. This means it is virtually impossible to predict how easy or difficult new technology will be for anyone based solely on age. For some, physical and cognitive declines begin as early as the thirties. For others, the changes are not noticeable until well into their sixth decade. Still, there are some generalizations which can be made, especially when it comes to learning, and especially since the group we’re talking about here is over sixty (most seem to use 65 as the cut-off for “older adult”).

One of those generalizations is the need for repetition in the learning process. With cognitive slowing, repetition seems to be the adaptive technique adopted by everyone. Even when they understand a concept or task, older adults will ask to be guided through the steps again, and again. Even when they have mastered a procedural skill requiring only a few steps, they need to return to the task and repeat it periodically to retain it. The more they repeat the new skill, the more likely it will “stick,” becoming part of their “crystallized” intelligence.

So here is Tip #4: Be repetitive.

Be very repetitive. Come back to a learned skill frequently, even while building on that skill and knowledge. Don’t just give them opportunities to practice a new skill, encourage it. Emphasize the necessity of practicing the new skill. Require practice, if possible. I have found older adults will forget what they have “mastered” within two days when they do not practice the new skill. I sometimes compare learning to use computers to learning another language: the more they use it, the easier it gets, and conversely, the less it is used, the harder it is to remember.

Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #3

One of the advantages of teaching technology to older adults is the richer background they invariably have. That background is part of what has been called “crystallized intelligence,” which is stable and “lossless” under normal circumstances. The knowledge and skill remains even after they have stopped using it. This is a very important advantage that is often overlooked. I once had a 91 year old woman in my classes who had been a typist 70 years earlier. She struggled to hunt and peck on the keyboard. Finally, she carefully placed her fingers on the keyboard, closed her eyes, and typed perfectly.

A major task for the trainer is to identify existing knowledge or skills, to make the process of learning technology easier. Even if they do not have experience on a computer, their history is part of the history from which current technology developed. Instant messaging is just a new way of sending telegraphs. A camera’s memory card is just a new type of film: it has to be inserted into the camera to get pictures, and must be carefully removed to prevent losing the pictures. By making a connection between the new and the known, the skill (or concept) becomes an extension of what is already familiar.

Building on existing knowledge and experience reduces the processing overhead, part of what is called “fluid intelligence,” which is the hardest hit in the aging process. Whether it be remembering how to type, or making a conceptual connection, any time learning can piggyback on stable, “crystallized intelligence,” there is less burden on working memory and the process of creating more crystallized intelligence. This is a good thing.

Tip #3: Build on what they already know.

Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #2

As processing becomes slower and memory acquisition becomes more limited, older adults begin making adjustments to compensate. They begin to draw more on their strengths (semantic and global memory) to compensate for the greater difficulty in learning new material. This is why analogies work well (see Tip #1). To put it in computer terms, learning requires blocks of short term memory for the process of laying down a block of long term memory. If that process can utilize links to existing long term memory, the demands on short term memory are lessened, and the new block of long term memory has links to something that’s already stable, increasing the likelihood it will successfully map. On the other hand, without links to existing long term memory, the process becomes more resource-intensive in areas that are losing efficiency (short term memory).

As we age, processing speed slows so that the blocks of short term memory fail by the time they are needed at the end of processing. For example, in a four part process where step one must be remembered for step four while executing steps two and three, step one, utilizing a block of short term memory, typically gets lost during the intermediate steps so that step four cannot be completed.

One of the ways older adults deal with the increased difficulty in learning is to limit what they try to learn. They are motivated by how important a thing is to them personally to learn it, and they will learn only what they need to know for that item. For example, keeping in touch is important, whether it is with a spouse, children, grandchildren, friends, or doctors’ offices, so that cell phones no longer seem to be a convenience, but a requirement, even to the older generation. But all the bells and whistles available, even on the cheapest phones, are just that to the older generation: non-essential items which have a high learning cost. They will learn how to turn the phone on or off, how to keep it charged, how to make a call, how to answer a call, and how to “hang up.” Those are pretty straightforward tasks, using visible buttons on the phone. Learning to navigate through menus on the phone’s screen comes at a higher cost. For most, the additional features don’t add to their core requirement, which is to simply use the phone to make and receive calls anywhere they go, so there is not much incentive to attempt to learn how to use those features. How many older adults do you know who have a cell phone? How many of them can use the phone to take a picture and send it to someone? How many even want to?

Tip #2: Teach them only what they need to know to do what they want to do.

Connecting the disconnected

One of the things I do is teach technology to older people, especially those for whom it is still something new. These are typically people who have a very rich background which doesn’t happen to include computers. The basics of cell phones are fairly easy for them to grasp because they have used telephones to communicate for quite a long time, and their experience typically includes wireless home phones. So the “leap” to cell phones is really not that great, although there is a steep learning curve beyond simply answering the phone and ending a call. Not so with computers.

Computers have practically landed in their laps over the last couple years, full grown and ready to be their means of integration with the rest of the world today. Many have dodged the bullet, so to speak, by having a secretary or other, younger, worker interact with computers for them. But then they retire, and there is no one to do it for them any more.

There are also many who had embraced computers early on, and followed along with their development. But the changes are harder for them to manage now. Learning is not as easy. They tend to want to freeze time where they are comfortable, or at least slow the pace of change so they do not feel left behind.

Technology today represents a difficult place for the older adult. The constant changes require continual, rapid learning while traditional learning paths are becoming more difficult for them. And here’s the kicker: the assumption today that everyone has access to a computer and can use it. Product instructions assume prior knowledge of or familiarity with computers. Computer courses assume participants have at least some familiarity with computers, with a pace set for a much younger generation.

I see the ones who have fallen through the cracks, and it is not a happy picture. These are people with a very rich background. This is the World War II generation through the sixties. Yet their experience and competence pales for them compared with what they see “kids” capable of doing today. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard one of them say “I’m so stupid,” I could retire.

My main job (the one I actually get paid for) is finding ways to make learning to use computers and technology easier for older adults. So here are some tips for the rest of you out there trying to connect with the older generation:

Tip #1: Analogize. Tell a story. Make a comparison they can relate to. Accuracy is not as important as relevance. Here’s a handy example:

There was a discussion among a group of seniors of varying levels of computer experience about the difference between a hardware firewall and a software firewall. The easiest explanation I could give, and one which they all instantly understood: “You have a house, and you do not leave the door open so that people driving by can see inside (and decide whether to drop in and help themselves). In fact, most of you live in a gated community [this is Florida; everyone here understands the concept of gated communities]. A hardware firewall is like a gated community, keeping out unauthorized people. A software firewall goes a step further. It’s like having a high hedge around your house so if someone actually gets through the gate, they can’t even tell your house is there, much less see what’s inside.”

More tips to come…