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Seniors slowly adopting technology, but tweets and selfies still rare

Pew study reveals educated, affluent seniors are more likely to embrace gadgets, but most stay away from social networks

The joke used to be that a tech trend goes out of style once you see your grandma use it. But a Pew Research study released Thursday says catching older Americans online is slowly becoming the norm — and some are adopting smartphones.

The study found that 3 out of 4 adults over 65 own a cell phone, while about 3 ut of 5 have Internet access. The numbers still lag behind the 9 in 10 adults who carry a cellphone, and the same ratio that have Internet access, but Pew senior researcher Aaron Smith said there are a couple of key reasons why technology has taken so long to hit the older population.

“First, many seniors face unique physical challenges to using technology,” Smith said. “Second, many seniors who aren’t technology users have skeptical views towards the benefits of technology, and don’t see how technology is relevant to their lives.”

The study says 59 percent of older adults are using the Internet, a 6-point jump from 2012, which Pew considers significant. Most of them have a high-speed broadband connection available at home. Cellphone ownership also increased from 69 percent two years ago to 77 percent today. Only 27 percent of seniors use social networking sites.

But the study found some differences among seniors in terms of their use of technology. Those who are relatively young, affluent or highly educated are quite connected, own a fair number of devices, have integrated the Internet into their daily lives and have positive attitudes toward online life, Smith said.

“On the other hand, there are still a sizable number of older adults — generally older and less affluent, and often with significant health or disability issues — that are largely disconnected from the digital world,” he added. “They don’t use technology to any great degree, they would not feel comfortable learning how to use technology on their own, and in many cases they don’t feel like they are missing out on too much.”

Pocket telephone booth

Most of the older adults Al Jazeera randomly talked to about the study have a cellphone, but not all of them have a smartphone.

Of the 77 percent of older adults with cellphones, Pew said a paltry 18 percent had smartphones. Three years ago, it was 11 percent. It’s a small jump, especially considering that the average smartphone price has dropped since 2011 and many fully capable devices are available for free with a two-year service contract. 

More important, older people who have a smartphone may not even use its features. David, an older adult approaching retirement, told Al Jazeera he has been a cellphone user for more than a decade, but, in his words, “I don’t text. I don’t use apps.

“I rarely use the cellphone for anything other than business or for the privilege of having a telephone booth in my pocket.”

The New York–based Older Adults Technology Services opened a few years ago to help different generations understand the opportunities new technology presents. Thomas Kamber, executive director of OATS, sometimes sees a similar disconnect initially with its clientele.

“You ask, ‘Do you want to get online?’ and they may respond, ‘I don’t know what it would do for me,’” he said. “But if you say, ‘Would you like to see the newest pictures of your grandchildren or get new information on your health services?’ they will say, ‘Yes!’ They just don’t always see tech as that gateway.”

Changing lifestyle

Another senior, Guy Scrivner, didn’t see much promise with smartphones, but totally got into an even newer technology.

“I had [a Motorola] Droid smartphone for several years, but found out I wasn’t using it for data so I switched back to the older-style phone,” he said, saying his phone is used only for calls and an occasional text. But he said he and his friends are now into tablets.

“I think we like it for the same reason any other age group does,” he said. “I personally think people in my age group use the Internet because it has made it so much easier to manage personal finances, because of the bill-pay and auto-pay functions. Netflix and YouTube provide entertainment, and email is much easier than snail mail.”

“[For us,] there’s more fear about invasion of privacy,” another older adult, Randy Austin-Cardona, said. “A lot of it has to do with it almost being forced upon [us] by children, younger peers, work and other outside factors.”

Researchers said economics play a part, but proper education is the biggest barrier to entry for older adults. Unlike later generations, they were not raised with cellphones, email and the Internet.

While the number of connected seniors is rising, it is disturbing how many older adults are still disconnected from greater society because of the digital divide, Pew’s Smith said.

“To use one example, as more and more services for all Americans — including seniors — are migrating online, the older adults who need those services the most might have the most difficulty reaching them online,” Smith said.

Paper, phone calls and snail mail are dying from natural attrition — think, direct-deposited Social Security payments and online-only financial institutions. Not having proper Internet or cellphone access may soon be the equivalent of not having a credit card: You can function without it, but it certainly makes daily life that much harder.

“They often are looking for one thing: going after a new job or wanting to be more connected to grandkids,” Kamber said. “Once they understand it, they end up going much broader into the digital world. As a result, many will get a smartphone, a tablet and even a broadband connection at home. They not only want to be more digitally informed, but really want to join this digital age.”

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