“A little help?” Seniors (and others) online

Picture of an old woman as part of a Day of the Dead shrine.

My grandmother at age 102. With my help, she learned to use a computer mouse in her nineties.

One of my great passions is demystifying tools that have the power to improve your life — and in this day and age, that means technology. Yes, I am a zealot for the Internet and a nerd when it comes to all things digital, but I only like this stuff because it works. Unlike many “digital natives,” though, I understand that using new tools doesn’t always “come naturally” — it’s not always steep, but there is always, always, always a learning curve. When I work with people who are new to any system, I have to be nerdy and effective — and warm and patient, too.

My passion for working with older people learning to use new “tech” comes from a simple place: my grandmother was the most creative person I’ve ever met, and she kept learning all her life — what an inspiration. When she was 94 years old, one day she told me how frustrating the “new computers” were at one of her two volunteer jobs. “It’s this ‘mouse,’ ” she complained, mimicking for me how she thought it was supposed to work. “I just can’t figure it out.” The newfangled device was fixating — she couldn’t stop staring at the mouse.

I had an “Aha!” moment. ” “Grandma! It’s like a sewing machine pedal. The mouse is like the pedal. The pedal is what keeps it going, but you don’t look at the pedal when you’re sewing, do you?”

“Of course not!” My grandmother looked at me, outraged for a minute that I had forgotten the sewing lessons she gave me. “You have to keep your eye on the needle.”

“When you’re using the computer, keep your eye on the cursor — that little line on your screen that tells you where you are — that is like the sewing machine needle. The mouse is like the foot pedal — you move the mouse without looking at it.” It must have worked — Grandma continued at this job for another 3 or 4 years.

More recently, as the creator of an online community for widowed people, I have had the privilege of supporting hundreds of older people as they learned to use our rich, full featured service — some of them using social media for the first time. As a volunteer, I spend part of each day helping people in their 60s and older gain new skills at a challenging time in their lives, in order to discover new friends. I walk them through fixing their sideways profile pictures, adjusting privacy settings, posting in the right places, and making connections.

And how rewarding this work is! Two of our charter members, a woman in her late fifties and a Mormon gentleman of 73, had never been in a Chat room before — and they became regulars, making close friends and helping new members (of all ages) learn to use the site.

Unlike a lot of computer evangelists, I don’t “push” technology on people — that’s why I have created an artists’ inventory system that works just fine on a clipboard — but I try to listen for opportunities to make your job easier, whether you’re a collector, an artist, or in charge of a complicated estate. I find economical solutions that fit your needs and skills and train you, or help you along, depending on your budget and schedule.

I have learned, too, not to expect that older folks lack skills — I’ve met several artists in their 70s and 80s who’ve built their own websites with “just a little” help from their kids and grandkids. When I work with clients, I’m careful to assess your needs and abilities, as well as your interests, so we don’t commit to something you hate. In fact, it’s much easier to ask for help (especially from family) when you have an assessment of the job and what’s required up front, whether it’s creating an inventory, building a new website to market the work, or taking responsibility for a legacy for future years. Whatever you need, whatever your age, I’ll bet I can help!

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