As Computers Evolve, Tutoring Seniors Must Also Evolve – But How?

Helping seniors to become computer literate is a moving target. New skills are needed as new devices become popular, and new techniques need to be developed to meet the need of seniors wanting to become computer literate. The same goes for non-seniors with special needs.

A few years ago one of the most frequent requests was for help in using a mouse. People with limited flexibility in their fingers due to arthritis and other issues of aging have difficulty holding a mouse steady while attempting to click an icon. It is challenging when your fingers do not go where you want them to go, and then when you do get to the target, trying to hold the mouse steady while moving one finger to click is another challenge. A standard ploy I use is to urge them to drag a little finger on the mousepad and then clamp it tightly against the pad and the side of the mouse while also pressing the opposite side with their thumb before attempting a click.

For many seniors suffering from loss of flexibility, turning a scroll wheel can also be a challenge. For them, using the auto scroll function might be a good alternative, but many of them do not know about this handy feature.

Along with loss of flexibility, loss of visual acuity is a problem. Windows offers several alternatives to the standard display themes, including extra large print, high contrast display, and magnification for those with severe sight impairment.

By the way, if you are setting up a PC workstation for seniors, please be advised that we all wear bifocals or gradient glasses. If you set the monitor on top of the computer to save desk space, senior users will be forced to bob up and down to switch vision from monitor to keyboard or other desktop material. A roomful of seniors working at such stations resemble a flock of birds bobbing up and down for feed. Being sensitive to the limitations of senior eyesight requires a lower monitor. Some thought should also be given to how far the monitor is from a user’s face. Putting it back farther than usual might allow a senior to focus on it with mid-range and focus on the desktop with close-range. Tablets and laptops do not share this difficulty.

But along with the rest of the population, seniors are rapidly adopting tablets and smartphones instead of being tied to classic desktop or laptop computers. This is one aspect of the moving target for a tutor. The skills needed to navigate a tablet hampered with arthritis are different than those for handling a mouse.

Then there is the always delicate issue of discussing how to overcome an aging-related difficulty with a client who does not want to admit to having a difficulty. Sometimes the psychological hurdles are greater than the physical ones. Recently I had a class of seniors in a hands-on PC workshop. One of the women was having a difficult time with the practice exercise while the others were doing it with no problem. She was alert and obviously following the class, so what was the problem? A look at her hands showed crooked fingers and swollen joints. She was being frustrated by her inability to maneuver the mouse and click. Without thinking, I suggested to her that given her difficulties, she should try to grip the mouse differently. But before I could explain what I meant, she shot me a withering look which eloquently said. “I have lived more than 70 years, given birth to children, raised them, and support myself as a widow, and you are not going to tell me that I am deformed just because this damned mouse will not go where I want it. So watch your language!” This was before I had said anything more than to suggest she hold the mouse differently.

Nothing is gained in such a situation by continuing down that path. I nodded to her and suggested that if she wanted any help, I would be available.

In the same class, a man sitting at the next computer was having similar difficulties with simple mouse manipulation. I asked if he would like some pointers on how he might be able to improve his performance. He gratefully said yes. So we worked for a few minutes on how to stabilize the mouse while clicking, and I showed him how to vary the mouse speed through the control panel to better meet his needs. All the time while talking to him, I ignored the first woman even though I noted she was watching us. Before the session ended, she had made considerable progress and had essentially adopted my suggestions. If it works for her, then it works for me.

This class was a laboratory using standard PCs. However, in the computer clubs I attend, many of the members have switched to tablets with varying comments on the difficulty of swiping across the tablets. I have yet to formulate a standard presentation suitable for seniors using tablets. One would think that touchscreens present fewer difficulties to operate with limited mobility than a mouse, and that is probably true, but I have seen seniors struggle with multiple-finger manipulations just as they do with a standard mouse.

Even if we do develop protocols to help seniors make the transition from desktop to tablet, how long will those skills be necessary? Last weekend I cleaned up my office and threw out the last of my floppy disks. They are obsolete. CDs are essentially dead. How long will DVDs last? The speech recognition feature that comes standard with Windows is not perfect, but it is much better than the first examples I used some years ago. Will tablets give way to speech-driven devices? What will the next generation of computing things look like? I say “computing things” because the concept of a computer changed with tablets and will change again. And whatever comes next, seniors will have some difficulties that younger people do not face.

CC licensed Flickr image shared by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

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  • Jason

    I work in rehab at a local hospital in south Florida. As far as the issue with dexterity you might try to pick the brain of an occupational therapist who specialize in upper extremity therapy. You’d be surprised with how much help they can offer. I have found when it comes to tech that the seniors I work with that new tablets and even android and iOS phones are wonderful improvements to helping them become more computer literate. A lot of patience is required in helping them and certainly a lot of one on one time is VERY important. What I’ve found that helps the most for me is changing their mindsets regarding these new devices. I find that telling them that these are exciting toys and should be treated as such. I ask them before even turning on a phone or tablet that this is about having fun and fun is required to help them learn. I ask them, once I’ve given them guidelines on how to function the device to have fun and explore their new toy. Like a new car you want to discover all the new features. I ask them to download one new app a day and to learn how to use that app. By the end of a week you’d be surprised how well they do and how much they love their new toy. A lot of computer illiterate people view tech as a mountain that they must climb and conquer and they have no desire to do it either. It’s a chore for them and all they really want to do is use the web and email their family but it’s never that simple. Changing their mindset is the key to making a useful and happy student. I got both my parents tablets for Christmas last year. After I helped them set up their tablets and an hour long course on basic function I had them each start with downloading and using one app. By noon that day they were still immersed in their new toys and they were grinning ear to ear and having fun with it. Oh sure I still get a question or two but they don’t approach me with that sense of dread like so many do scared I’m going to give them a masters course in solving their problem and once I help them with that problem they rarely, if ever, have to ask again. Good article btw!

  • http://www.facebook.com/philip.a.costa Philip Allen Costa

    I am 75 now, my fist computer was a IBM clone with a 10 MB I used it in my printing business to print labels, back in the early 80′s I graduated through 286, 386, 486, I did desktop publishing in addition to printing, at the age of 60 I got a A+ certificate then was able to get a job installing ADSL internet, This was system of TV and internet over copper phone lines with a phone company. After that stint I became a DSL tech, different employer same phone Co. Now I have 5 computers, 1 iPad, 1 ipod, 1 Nook, 2 cameras with a Wi-Fi SD chips (Eye-Fi). Now my take about Senior Citizens becoming computer literate or even basic users. 1. you have to want to do Computing. Most Seniors that I know are afraid of computers or don’t have the skill or understanding of the beast. Some Senior Centers offer courses sometimes free or very cheap.

    • http://www.facebook.com/philip.a.costa Philip Allen Costa

      I need to add something. I personally do not know how Seniors with no computer experience what so ever will be able to learn Vista, Windows 7, haven’t heard anything good about Windows 8. I have to see XP pro go away, I have all 3 OS’s mentioned, my laptop came with Vista it has been a reeducational experience for me. The other Laptop has Windows 7, don’t like it at all. I will keep my XP until the program will absolutely not work any longer. IN my humble opinion for someone with NO computer experience a OS like Windows 98 would be good for Seniors to start
      with. What do the rest of you think?

      • sdeforest

        I also have machines with all the above, but prefer Ubuntu. Vista is my least favorite. XP is good, but I like 7 better. Undecided about 8.

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  • ‘Tis Moi

    Hi Sherm,

    You’ve really spotlighted a lot of hurdles that many tutors wouldn’t have considered- thanks for that! I tend to ask a fair amount of questions of my clients before we ever start the first lesson. A lot of it is similar to what you’ve found- physical issues being the biggest problem for most. How you approach a person is very important (as you found- no one wants to be seen as “feeble” in any way). I will often relate silly things that I first did- until I was shown a better way. I also make certain to stress that there are a myriad of ways to accomplish the same thing with a computer- and that it’s important to try different ways until one “fits”.

    With regards to new tech- I don’t believe that it’s simply a matter of “that generation” having issues with tech. I see young kids who are expert on their phone (or so it seems)- but in reality, all they know how to do is to text & use a few apps. When it comes to fixing an issue, they know as much as the seniors know about computers- not much. The same holds true for them on computers- and it will hold again for tablets. It’s the analogy of cars- I use mine every, single day. I do not want to know how to fix it. That’s what will keep tech repair/tutors in business.

    PS- always recommended this mouse for the problem clickers:

    http://www.logitech.com/en-us/mice-pointers/trackballs/4680

  • Clara Griffel

    I am a computer instructor for seniors for the past 8 years. To put them at ease, I have some standard sentences.
    1. I guarantee that you can hit them and they will not hit you back.
    2. You have to let them know what your intentions are, because they have no ESP.
    3. Keep your arms and the mouse in your hand parallel to your nose
    4. using the computer is the same as playing the piano, if you do not practice, it will not
    become as a second nature.
    It seems to work.

  • sdeforest

    I use your point 4 almost exactly. It is true. You and I are on the same track

  • sdeforest

    Thank you for the comments. You are right about the young ones also not being experts, but they have the advantage of never having dialed a telephone and probably never saw a 33 record. This early exposure gives them an advantage.

  • sdeforest

    What a great response! I like you idea of downloading an app a day (An app a day keeps the doctor away). Recently I was cleaning out our Honda Odyssey after a camping trip and found several features I did not know were there–we have owned the van for 2 years. So I am still leaning both computer and car–and both are changing!

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