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A Role for Seniors and Boomers in Digital Literacy

We mastered the laptop — the fancy cellphone — and even Skype to keep in touch with the distant grandkids. We can talk knowledgably about cloud computing, use our phones to take photos, check the weather and send texts. We love our e-readers for long trips, follow favourite blogs and sometimes use Twitter. We’ve been told in no uncertain terms to never, ever, post anything on a grandkid’s Facebook wall.

Seniors and Boomers Have a Role in Digital Literacy

Yep, the old image of a codger hunting and pecking on a laptop, or thinking ‘wireless’ is just another name for the radio, is a thing of the past. Moving a senior now always includes an Internet connection– and why don’t retirement residences provide free Wi-Fi?

So, What’s the Real Story with Seniors, Boomers and Digital literacy?

Ageist stereotypes that portrayed seniors as neither willing nor able to learn, clinging to out-of-date knowledge and practices have been replaced by the ideal of ‘lifelong learning’. The “Third Age” is now considered an opportunity for self-realization, and digital technology offers powerful tools for learning, self-expression, and building, maintenance and sharing of identity.

Which seniors are the most Internet-savvy?

Recent studies show seniors and Boomers are online at home for five hours or more a day. The only significant difference found was between those not in the labour force. About 52% of Boomers not in the labour force were intensive Internet users compared to 46% of non-working seniors. While those not working may have more time to use the Internet for personal use, the intensity of use may be related to their previous workplace Internet experience.

Senior intensive users came from households with similar median income levels and had similar levels of educational attainment to other online seniors (nearly 30% in each group had a university degree).  Just over one-half of senior men who used the Internet from home were intensive users, compared with fewer senior women online (53% versus 39%). Among Boomers who used the Internet from home, the gender gap was smaller, at 57% of men compared with 46% of women.

4 Ways Seniors and Boomers Use the Internet

So who’s using what — and why?

1. Interacting with Governments

Seniors were less likely to use the Internet from home to search for government information and to communicate with governments; a significantly higher proportion of Boomers accessed information on specific programs or services, and downloaded and submitted forms online. Boomers were also more likely to file census forms and tax returns online than seniors.

2. Retirement Planning

As individuals moving closer to their retirement years become increasingly interested in information on government retirement programs such as the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans (CPP/QPP), and Old Age Security (OAS); 60% of non-retired boomers stated they would like retirement information via the Internet compared to 15% of non-retired seniors.

3. Health Information

Some 52% of seniors who use the Internet searched for health information online, vs. 60% of Boomers. For both Boomers and seniors who searched for health information online, information on specific diseases was the most common type of information sought. Similar proportions of seniors and Boomers who accessed health information online searched for information on drugs and medications, alternative therapy, the health care system and delivery, and information on surgeries. Boomers were more likely than seniors to access health information related to lifestyle such as diet, nutrition, exercise and health promotion (49% vs. 36%), or to find information on the analysis of specific symptoms (47% vs. 38%).

4. E-commerce

Electronic commerce (e-commerce) continues to grow in Canada, although much of the value of online orders is concentrated among a relatively small group of users. Internet shopping includes not only purchasing online, but also browsing products and services online to gather information for future purchasing decisions, which may result in either an online or in-store purchase. About 60% of Boomer Internet users placed orders online in the past year, and 76% said they window-shopped online for goods and services. These activities were much less common among seniors.

E-commerce may be related to levels of Internet experience as well as security concerns. The most active online consumers are less likely to report high levels of concern about online credit card use. Seniors tend to have less online experience than users under 65, and seniors and Boomers alike also tend to express high levels of concern over Internet security. Both Boomers and seniors who owned credit cards (approximately 60%) said they would be very concerned about using their credit card online, significantly more than credit card owners aged 16 to 44 (76%).

If You’re Not Connected – You’re Missing Out

For Canadian seniors with large and dispersed extended families, email may represent an efficient means of keeping in touch; email users aged 65 and older were more likely to use email to communicate with relatives than all other users.Many seniors feel that it has improved their family connections, and they communicate more frequently with relatives when email is available, as well as using Skype, blogging, participating in discussion forums and uploading photos online.

Impediments to Getting Online

Complaints continue to be raised that current websites are twice as hard to use for seniors as they are for younger users. Probably not that surprising, since Web designers are usually fairly young.

Following the usability guidelines for seniors can increase the sales of almost all e-commerce sites, since many seniors have substantial assets. Improvements in font size, colour, format, layout, intuitive navigation and avoidance of jargon and acronyms could improve the reputation and usage statistics for any company that would like to serve seniors.

Getting Online if You’re Not Connected Yet

There’s no shame in not being online yet, and there are lots of resources to get you started. Here are a few examples:

Web Wise Seniors, Inc. is a company dedicated to helping individuals over the age of 50 learn basic computer skills, regardless of their location or financial status. Web Wise Seniors teaches the senior community via specially designed mobile training labs to allow teaching virtually everywhere that seniors already congregate. The company takes its classes to people who are unable to travel to other learning facilities. Classes are taught through school systems, retirement villages, senior centers, hospital systems and other community organizations.

Senior Connects focuses on increasing computer access at senior centers, retirement apartments, and independent living facilities. Through the Senior Connects programs, 50,000 individuals have been brought online.

Check your local library, community college, seniors centre, high school or community services for information on digital literacy classes.

Bridge the Intergenerational Divide

Digital literacy starts early in life, with toddlers confidently playing with touch-screens and tweens toting smartphones. Who hasn’t witnessed the dismal sight of two people on a date, heads bowed, texting who — each other?

Boomers and seniors are uniquely qualified to bring some ‘high-touch’ to the ‘high-tech’ by offering an historical perspective and unique ability to put sociability back into social media.

Show the kids and grandkids that there’s more then instant messaging and Facebook by sharing personal stories that are more than 40 characters per line. Enjoy the e-book, but show your grandkids a well-loved copy of your mother’s poetry anthology, annotated in her own hand. Upload photos but take out the old albums,too, and pass them around.

So, are you ready for the challenge? Go for it – and sent me a Tweet telling me how you did!

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Have you found it difficult to get connected online? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
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