Avoiding communication breakdown
My mum turned 90 this year. I was fortunate to celebrate the occasion with my family in the United States. At the birthday party, my mother was showered with gifts, food, cakes, hugs, and love from her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I think that my mum was very happy to see everyone in one place.
It is easy for me to connect with my daughter. She is on Facebook, and she is active on Line. She regularly shares pictures of my grandson using her phone and emails links to his video clips. When it comes to my mum, staying connected is a bit harder. She does not have email, a smartphone or a tablet. She has access to a computer through my sister who cares for her. My way of connecting with her is making phone calls through a landline in her home.
Communication technology can provide many benefits to the elderly. It can be a source of entertainment by granting many seniors access to films and music from their past. My mum often watches Chinese television shows and news via satellite. She is still healthy enough to walk unassisted, however, there are many seniors who are less mobile. For these elderly individuals with mobility difficulties, technology can be a gateway for them to connect with others. With a home computer or smart device, they can communicate with family and friends within the comfort of their own homes.
As powerful as communication technology has become, not all of its dimensions reach my mother. She may watch television and answer her landline phone but getting her to do more with technology such as texting or sending videos is problematic. I do not think that my mother is a unique case. Incorporating technology into the lives of the elderly has many challenges.
First, there is the cost barrier. The price of an iPhone 6 can run to 35,000 baht in addition to the cost of utility plans. The cost of computer hardware, software and peripherals adds up. For seniors living on minimal income, purchasing electronic devices is out of the question.
Second, some of the elderly may have medical conditions such as arthritis or cognitive impairments that prevent them from exploiting the technology. When my daughter tried to teach my mother how to use a digital camera, my mother quickly became frustrated because she did not understand the difference between pushing the shutter button half way down to focus and all the way down to snap the picture. The deteriorated dexterity in her hands and fingers made it difficult for her to feel the small buttons and the slight differences in the tension between half and full depression. I do not think that she understood the half-depression shutter operation on digital cameras.
She has always pushed buttons all the way down whether it is the elevator buttons, buttons on the TV remote or on numbered buttons the phone. Learning to do something different than what she has been doing all of her life can be confusing. If something as simple as using a digital camera can be daunting for my mother, trying to explain how to use a mouse to drag and drop icons on a computer would even be more difficult.
Third, the learning curve for most elderly people to learn to use the computer or the World Wide Web is very steep. Even for those who can overcome the learning barrier, to gain full utility of computing technology, they will need additional education on internet phishing, computer security, viruses, worms, how to back up data, troubleshooting connection, hardware and software problems.
Last, there is a practical barrier. Many of the elderly do not have credit cards or email addresses — something essential to most mobile apps. One of the most prevalent internet norms is individualised account management. Having to remember passwords, logins, personal identification numbers etc. may seem easy to people who access the internet on a daily basis, but to seniors, it is a challenge, especially when some are suffering from memory problems. Concepts such as access have entirely different meanings online compared to real life.
I used to think that it would be so much easier to stay connected with my mum if she knew how to use a computer or smart device. Because she does not use them, she cannot download pictures of her grandchildren and video chat with her great-grandchildren. She misses out on funny spur-of-the-moment pictures, daily activities, and changes in the lives of family members. As much as I would like for her to be more comfortable with computers, to be fruitful, technology must be embraced, not forced upon others. To push her out of her comfort zone would cause unnecessary stress. It is ironic that some aspects of technology that are meant to keep everyone connected end up isolating others.
It may be slightly inconvenient for me to print photos on glossy paper, but it is exponentially more convenient for my mum to enjoy them. Rather than getting frustrated over the reasons why my mum cannot text or trying to understand why a touchscreen is hard for her to use, I have learnt that for my mum, in order to make the most out of the convenience of technology, it is more productive to start from her point of view.
Prapai Kraisornkovit is the editor of Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post Life section Editor.