Top tips to help get older friends and family online

Thursday, 10 August, 2017

If you’re under the age of 40 it can seem like the internet is all-pervasive and has always been with us.

It’s certainly changed the way society operates, from news to banking to paying council tax – many services are going online-first or online only.

But what if you’ve got elderly friends or relatives who can’t enjoy everything the internet has to offer?

A recent Ofcom study revealed that 43 percent of elderly people don’t see any need to use the internet. At all.

The rest of us would struggle to make it through the day without going online.

The same study found that a further 38 percent of older people do want to get online, but they have to find someone else to work the internet for them.

If you’ve ever had to act as the middleman between a pensioner and a computer, you’ll understand the mass trauma that that statistic represents.

The main reason that older people struggle with using computers is fairly simple: they don’t understand how they work.

Modern software and operating systems are designed to be as intuitive and user-friendly as possible – but only to those that get the concept of how to use a computer.

How to explain a computer to an older person

It’s all about frame of reference with computers.

If you’ve ever tried explaining how a computer works, you might find yourself falling into modern-day tropes of explaining one technology with another.

So it might appear from the learner’s side that there’s all sorts of background knowledge you need about what the internet is, and how it works, before you can start using a computer.

This can be confusing and daunting to someone who was already a pensioner by the time the internet was invented.

Don’t worry about being patronising – you’re just trying to help.

What they need to know is that most of us using computers and smartphones every day are using workarounds and shortcuts to do what we want to do online. You certainly don’t need to know why a computer or phone works the way it does in order to get online.

Using the real world to explain computers

Explain things by using physical real-world examples and analogies. For example:

The computer’s desktop is like a workbench.
The programs are the tools in the drawers.
The internet browser is the tool that gets you online.
The internet is like a giant library.
Websites are the books in the library.
Webpages are the pages in those books.
Google is a librarian that helps you find books you’re looking for.

Explaining things in this way may seem condescending at first, but it will help to build a foundational understanding that they can fall back on if they ever get stuck.

Here are some extra tips that might help when you’re talking them through things:

Explain everything. We are all so used to computers that it’s easy to think a lot of it is obvious. Try to describe everything you’re doing no matter how simple it might seem to you.
Be patient. Even something as simple as turning a computer on and getting to Google takes a lot of small steps, so don’t rush through any of them.
Get them to repeat what you’ve shown them. If they get anything wrong, explain it all again and have them try once more. Repeat as necessary and try not to get frustrated.
Lower the double click speed. Many old people have trouble double clicking. You can make this easier by lowering the double click speed in the Mouse settings of the computer. Alternatively, you can teach them to right click and then select Open from the menu.
Change Accessibility or Ease of Access Center settings. There are many settings that can make reading and typing easier so, if your older person has difficulties, you could significantly improve their experience with a few easy adjustments.

Remember, you don’t have to teach them everything all at once. Once you’re sure they have the fundamentals down, you can start expanding to more specific programs and features.

If you need some help convincing your old person to get online, here are some helpful benefits that even the most stubborn pensioner would struggle to overlook.

E-books. Not only is there a huge variety of cheap literature available digitally, E-book readers have many options that make them easier to read if your vision is starting to go.
Facebook. Elderly relatives love to stay in touch with family and Facebook makes this easier than ever. Whether you actually want your relatives commenting on photos of you on a night out or not is up to you.
Shopping. Online shopping is a daunting prospect for many but, when it gets difficult to move around easily, the power to have anything delivered to your doorstep can’t be understated.
NHS Choices. When people get old, any minor medical problem can be cause for concern. Googling medical issues might set their mind at ease, or encourage a needed trip to the doctors.
Chess. Playing chess or cards on the computer isn’t much different from playing in real life. Online chess and card games can give old people an easy way to play, compete and chat with other players from the comfort of their home.

You might think it’s not worth the trouble, that they’re doing fine without it so, why bother?

Imagine if no-one ever explained how to use the internet to you. Think of everything that happens online and then picture being excluded from that just because you’re slow to catch on.

Getting online can add so much to someone’s life, whether they know it or not. Be kind to your older person and help them open the doors to the internet.

Samuel Newman author picture


Samuel Newman is a consumer journalist and blogger based in Sheffield.