Older New Yorkers Learning Technologies For A Thriving Multigenerational Relationship

By Yijun He

Roz Carlin, 93, lives at Hallmark Battery Park, an assisted living facility in Lower Manhattan. Two days before this year’s Thanksgiving she decided not to go to the family dinner, because the next day her family would take her to the circus. “If I go to both, I’ll be exhausted. That would be too much for me,” says Ms. Carlin.

Ms. Carlin used to call her family by phone to deliver news. But her daughter gave her a new weapon⎯an iPad⎯to keep her brain active. She also started taking a computer class through Pace University. The class, called “Intergenerational Computing”, aims to use technology to improve the quality of life for older New Yorkers.

Sitting at the table in front of her iPad, Ms. Carlin was writing an email to her daughter, explaining that she would spend $50 to buy disposable cutlery for the family dinner, as a symbol of her presence. “Paper trash goods? Paper goods? Party paper goods? Oh, what was the word they used?” Ms. Carlin was cautiously choosing her words and phrases, typing and deleting again and again, like a scientist who goes through trial and error to get things right.

Intergenerational Computing

Intergenerational Computing

With New Yorkers living longer than ever before, and information and communication technologies (ICTs)⎯Internet, email, Skype, social media⎯becoming ubiquitous in daily life, more and more older adults are trying to become technophiles in their 70s, 80s or even 90s, like Ms. Carlin.

“Very shortly, we are going to have more older adults living in New York City than we have school-age children. That has never happened in the history of our city,” says Caryn Resnick, Deputy Commissioner of NYC Department for the Aging (DFTA). She adds: “It’s a huge interest among older adults to become Internet-savvy.”

Contributing to that interest is the fact that more older Americans are also living alone now. The percentage of national population aged 75 and over living alone are 22.6 and 47.4 for men and women respectively, according to a report by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. Technology can help older Americans effectively reduce the risk of being isolated, and more importantly, stay connected with family.

“I have four sons, and three of them are doctors. They are just so involved with their work and too busy,” says Bebe Feld, 89, a resident at Hallmark. Ms. Feld is also a student of the “Gerontechnology Program”, learning to use email to keep her family updated about her life, and also to know what’s happening in their lives.

Internet related technologies are especially important for the solidarity of intergenerational ties, some experts say.

“Because of the invention of email, now Skype, grandparents have a way to maintain connected with their grandchildren,” says Christine A. Fruhauf, a gerontology professor at Colorado State University, whose research interests include grandparent-grandchild relationships. “It’s another avenue for them.”

Sometimes, just to understand what the younger children are talking about can mean a lot to older adults. “I think the biggest challenge with intergenerational relationships is the fact that different generations have terminology and acronyms that are not familiar to each other,” said Dr. Jean F. Coppola, one of the founders of the Gerontechnology Program at Pace University. “My family and grandkids are using all these words like Twitter, Facebook, and I want to be in the conversation, they tell me,” Dr. Coppola continued, explaining why older adults come to her program for help.

“I said ‘that machine’ once, and they told me it’s not a machine. It’s the ‘Internet’,” Ms. Carlin recalled laughing.

Now after three years of immersing herself in the Internet and beyond, Ms. Carlin has become familiar with email, Facebook and Skype, which she uses to stay in touch with her family members. “The children definitely have a better opinion of me for what I’m doing,” says Ms. Carlin with pride on her face. “I have six great grandchildren, but I’m working the iPad with them.”

Intergenerational ties are important for the society as well. As early as April 2002, the United Nations hosted the Second World Assembly on Ageing which was held in Madrid, where the Political Declaration and Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing was adopted. One of its central themes was the “recognition of the crucial importance of families, intergenerational interdependence, solidarity and reciprocity for social development”. To stress the importance, the Assembly also made an appeal that “all sectors of society, including governments, should aim to strengthen those ties”.

“The relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is one that’s vital to maintain family continuity,” said Laura Hess Brown, an associate professor well versed in intergenerational relationships at State University of New York at Oswego. “Margaret Mead once said, ‘Everyone needs to have access both to grandparents and grandchildren in order to be a full human being.’”

Nevertheless, it can be hard to build strong ties between grandparents and grandchildren when they don’t have much time to spend together. Data from the AARP Public Policy Institute analysis of Current Population Survey shows that only 6.1 percent of all American households were multigenerational ones in 2010, despite a slight increase due to the downturn of the economy in recent years. Only 10 percent of children in America are living with a grandparent regardless of whether there are parents in the household or not.

It’s natural to think of technology as a solution. But the technology is one of the intergenerational gaps itself. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project Surveys, 97 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 are Internet users as of April 2012. In contrast, only 53 percent of Americans aged 65 and over used Internet, despite a big increase from 15 percent in April 2000.

That’s the reason why some organizations and institutions across the city are providing computer skill and technology classes for the older adults. Apart from both public and private universities, public libraries throughout the city and most senior centers are offering this kind of class for free. The city also provides computer classes for older adults through its Department of Parks and Recreation.

Right now the DFTA is working with Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), a non-profit organization that, according to its website, works to “harnesses the power of technology to change the way we age”. More than 5,000 elders have participated in OATS programs since 2004. And recently they got a large grant from FCC to expand the penetration of broadband among older people.

It is a world that Ms. Carlin is ready for. “I’m in the children’s world now! I know what’s going on when they use Twitter, Facebook, and some of the other words I can’t bring out now,” Ms. Carlin says happily. “I can’t wait to see all my messages on my iPad.”

Email Yijun at yh940@nyu.edu. She is also on Twitter.

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