Technology can make life easier for seniors and caretakers

Many of us invest at least part of our lives to helping our aging parents. Have you ever thought how much aid to your parents could be outsourced to technology to make not only your life easier, but improve their quality of life?

Penney McClarin, resource development director at the Las Cruces Good Samaritan Society, offers a course at their local center focusing on getting their elderly residents in touch with technology. A twelve-week course, just one hour a week, allows exposure to donated iPads for all the residents who sign up. They are tasked with various activities: emailing, taking pictures — including selfies — and how to navigate internet voice and video calling with Skype.

With so much emphasis on the younger and even middle-aged generation having daily and constant access to technology, with some of the youngest being coined “digital natives”, McClarin believes that it’s not so much that senior are inherently hesitant to learn, but that it takes time to learn skills that they previously didn’t have. “It’s not a matter of their age. It’s more because they haven’t been subjected to it like we have,” said McClarin. “One gentleman told me, ‘I’m not sure if I’m going to learn anything, but I’m going to try.’”

McClarin noticed a sharp change in those who were able to learn to integrate their new technological abilities. She noted one group of friends who used the iPad to virtually give one of their sick friends a seat at the table during their weekly lunch outings, even if the friend with the iPad was bedridden. “It allowed her to ‘come out’ and be social,” said McClarin.

“It’s made a tremendous difference. One resident said she had lost her son and a grandson last year and she was really isolated,” said McClarin. “Through the iPad project, she decided to get an iPod mini and says she feels like a whole new person, one click away from her family, that they’re right there.”

Barriers which locked senior residents into their isolation — such as the wait for international letters by a resident who had relatives in Japan, who could now immediately contact them via video — virtually melted away.

However, the flip side could entangle an elderly person in a lack of privacy and the feeling of loss of independence if the technology becomes too much. Dr. Donna Wagner, dean of the New Mexico State University College of the Health and Social Services who has specialized in gerontology, explained that “smart” retirement communities have been popping up in places like Florida. “Everything is wired. Scan your receipt and it’ll go to your doctor,” said Wagner. “He knows what they eat and they don’t want to do that — he’ll see that I bought all these peanuts with salt!”

“The options become intrusive — all the monitoring of when you got up, when you took your medicine, motion detectors; people are not thinking clearly about an older person’s right not to be a part of that,” said Wagner.

Technology for everyone walks the fine line of opening of worlds and becoming a negative intrusive force. For seniors, the path into the new age must be guided by the digital natives. It’s the younger generation who needs to recognize the desire of seniors to learn and connect and need to understand when seniors may pull away from embedding themselves into the web as organically as they did.