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Senior citizens and technology: A hopeless or hopeful future?

“I lost the Google!” my 80-year-old grandmother once told my dad over the phone. “I turned on my computer, and it was gone. I don’t know where it went.”

Like many of my older relatives, my Grandma Evelyn was far from a tech guru when she was alive. Her skills ranged from sending e-cards from 123Greetings for every holiday (even the days you didn’t know were actual holidays) to playing Zuma (a tile-matching puzzle computer game) for six hours without getting up from her worn-in, oversized leather chair. She owned an ancient e-reader (circa 2006) but couldn’t download a single book on her own. The only things she did download were nasty computer viruses, especially the kind that makes infinite ads pop up when you’re trying to browse the web.

Most of the time, Grandma Evelyn laughed at her technological amateurism. She knew my dad could fix anything she “broke” and find anything she “lost” (including the Google search bar she accidentally switched out for Yahoo). And she wasn’t alone. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Internet Research Center, only 26 percent of internet users 65 years and older claimed to have confidence in utilizing computers, smartphones or other electronic devices to go online. In another study, researchers found that 77 percent of older users need someone else to help them set up a new electronic device.

I know I’ve given my share of tutorials, even though I’m not the most technologically savvy millennial. When my mom received an iPad for Christmas a few years ago, I sat down with her to make sure she knew the following: how to turn it on and off, how to control the volume, how to open and close an app and how to take a photo. It’s all pretty basic, right? It took her some time to master all the bells and whistles that come with an Apple product, but she eventually figured out enough to download apps and take selfies all by herself. I’m a very proud teacher.

If I tried to teach Grandma Evelyn the basics of an iPad or iPhone, I imagine I wouldn’t be very successful. Of course, not every senior citizen has difficulty understanding the latest technological advances. Just Google the Turing Award (the most prestigious prize in the field of computer science), and you’ll see how many men (and how few women) have received it, their ages ranging from 40s to 70s. There are senior citizen-aged people who dedicate their retirement to researching and advancing technology. But I think we can all agree that the majority of senior citizens aren’t coding apps. Instead, they’re commenting in all caps on their grandkids’ updated Facebook profile pictures because they can’t figure out how to turn the caps lock off. Don’t deny it; you’ve seen it and laughed.

When I moved to the Bay Area from Philadelphia a couple years ago, I was shocked by a lot of things — the number of surprisingly good sushi joints, the prevalence of electric cars, the actual casualness of business casual clothing on the West Coast. I knew I’d be living in the heart of Silicon Valley, the holy birthplace of tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook. The startup culture didn’t shock me in the least because as a millennial myself, I’m used to the go-getter, doesn’t-take-no-for-an-answer venture capitalist who creates apps as a side hustle. I had gone to high school with kids who already owned three businesses before they had taken the SATs (although my peers definitely paled in comparison to those who went to high school in Silicon Valley).

The aspect that startled me most was the popularity of Apple products among senior citizens. Should I have been surprised, though? Apple Park is only a 15-minute drive from Stanford University. There are two Apple stores in Palo Alto within two miles of each other. At home, I have to travel at least 16 miles or 30 minutes if I need to see an Apple-certified technician in person. It’s pretty out of the way if you don’t live right next to the Quaker Bridge Mall in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, especially for those who hate driving (or more like swerving around potholes) on I-295. When I’m at school, I can easily bike or take the University bus for free to the Apple store.

Since there are two(!) Apple stores located in the company’s birthplace, I wondered if more senior citizens use the products out of ease, or enjoyment, or some other reason entirely. My friends and I have had our fair share of troubles with Apple devices. When I was visiting my friend in early September, we stopped by both Apple stores multiple times because her laptop screen broke and my phone screen broke on the same day. We were lucky to be so close, as are the incredible number of older folks who own the very products we do.

And so, I decided to hang out inside the Apple store on University Avenue a few weeks ago. I wanted to talk to older people who were interested in buying Apple products or had come to the store with a problem. I was genuinely curious about whether living in Silicon Valley had compelled them to buy into the monopoly that Apple has over the majority of smartphones, tablets and laptops. Although my first smartphone was an iPhone 6S, I was raised on computers with Windows operating systems, so I’ve never owned (and will probably never own) a MacBook. But when I strolled around the Apple store, surveying the chaotic scene of flustered college students and children throwing tantrums, I realized that the few senior citizens in the store were perfectly calm — almost serene.

Some of them seemed to be waiting for a technician’s assistance, but others were merely browsing the excessive selection of overpriced devices (you can’t argue that a $1,000 phone isn’t ridiculous). None was in conversation with anyone else, so I decided to approach several men and women to get my questions answered. However, not a single person wanted to be interviewed — not until William McHugh, a 75-year-old retired accountant and New York native, sauntered into the store and gave me a friendly smile as I desperately looked around for my next potential interviewee. I watched him check in for an appointment, then he sat down on a nearby bench. Hoping he would be willing to answer even one question, I walked up and gave my spiel. We proceeded to chat for almost half an hour.

McHugh started the conversation with a very clear statement: “I’m not a senior citizen by choice but by society’s expectations. I might not be the most physically fit or have the most open mind. I’m apparently a senior citizen by those qualities. But I’m not a senior citizen by my understanding of technology.”

He had come to the Apple store to get his iPhone XS fixed the screen started glitching after he dropped it, even though the actual screen hadn’t cracked. Bringing it in for repair was his last resort. He had checked out YouTube videos (which he said “isn’t that modern for an old guy”) and asked his grandchildren to try and figure out the problem. When they couldn’t, he reluctantly booked an appointment and showed up, hoping it wouldn’t be too expensive. He’s retired, after all.

“I moved here with my wife about 10 years ago after I retired,” McHugh said. “She’s from Sunnyvale and missed the area, so we moved back per her request. I guess I didn’t mind not having to shovel snow anymore. When we got here, I think the first or second iPhone had just come out. I didn’t want any piece of it. I was happy with my flip phone.”

As Apple came out with a greater variety of more advanced products, the craze started among the younger generations, including McHugh’s children and grandchildren. They showed him how to take the best “duck face” selfie and record the perfect Vine, but he still wasn’t convinced that paying an absurd amount of money for an iPhone would be worth it. He wasn’t against the technology itself but the price of the technology, and many of his friends were (and still are) of the same mindset.

“When you’re retired in an area as expensive as Silicon Valley, you have to be smart about spending your money,” McHugh said. “It’s great there’s a store to take your devices to fix, but very few times do you come out without spending at least several hundred dollars. The products aren’t cheap, and neither are the fixes.”

But the high prices still didn’t completely keep him from investing as he called it in the latest Apple releases. He gave into the pressure out of curiosity and determination to stay young, just as many of his friends have as well.

“When you’re on the East Coast, people don’t expect you to have the latest technology,” he elaborated. “At least, people over the age of 60 don’t. Young people are a whole different story. They’re all about having the newest gadgets. But for those my age, Apple doesn’t have as much influence over your life unless you’re living right in under its nose. Here, people look at you funny if you don’t upgrade or even have a matching iPhone and MacBook.”

After hearing that, I thought back to the time my grandfather wanted to trade his iPhone 4 back in for his old flip phone. While he never went through with it, I can’t imagine anyone would blink an eye in the Philadelphia suburb where he lives. My parents held onto their flip phones until a few years ago and sometimes had a hard time defending the decision not to upgrade to something with a screen wider than a few inches. Society seems to have decided that people over 65 generally don’t want to be and can’t be educated in technology, especially on the East Coast.

The fast-moving, technology-driven culture of Silicon Valley complicates this assumption, and McHugh hopes that this perception will soon disappear.

“Older people weren’t born literate in this new technology like millennials, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t want to learn,” he said. “You just assume we can’t or don’t, and so we never learn. There are many of us who are stuck in the past, and there are many of us looking toward the future. Please help us prepare.”

 

Contact Emily Schmidt at egs1997 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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