Helping older people online
Over half of the UK's 10 million over-65s are not online. Yet older people are among those who can benefit most from the increased social interaction and access to services that the internet provides. Those whose sight, hearing, or mobility is impaired may find it difficult to socialise in person where online they can participate as equals. Getting this group connected is a priority for both Age UK and the government's Race Online 2012 programme run by UK Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox.
Older people are as varied as any other population group. While some have a good grasp of how to use computers already, many lack confidence in their ability to learn something new. Some have visual impairments that make reading small type difficult or limited manual dexterity due to arthritis or other conditions. And finally, some may have cognitive impairment that makes it hard to remember complex commands. The web can help you find solutions to all these problems.
The first question to ask is: what does the person you're helping most want to do online? For many older people, pictures and video clips of grandchildren are the killer app. Email and social networks to stay in touch with family and friends are also a likely motivator, as well as access to news and entertainment, especially Internet radio and podcasts. Although the convenience of online shopping ought to be a benefit, concerns about privacy and security may make this something to explore later. You should agree in advance on priorities before getting started.
You will need to start with the right equipment. Although many people prefer laptops, for this situation a desktop computer may be a better choice so you can attach a large, good-quality monitor, an imperative for anyone with visual impairment. A full-size keyboard is less fiddly for shaky or arthritic hands. Alternatively, if typing-intensive applications (word processing, messaging) are less of a priority or if sitting at a desk is a problem, a tablet may be preferable. These make it easy to surf the web, view pictures and video clips, listen to music, and read books.
Many assistive technologies are available. Within standard software, Windows and Macs both have built-in accessibility settings you should explore together. Beyond that, there are specialty items, such as adapted keyboards, software that reads out the text on a screen (for those with visual difficulties), and speech recognition software (for those who can't type).
But the key is making it as easy as possible to use the system. Set the computer to load automatically the most frequently used software and sites: web browser and favourite pages, email software, perhaps video conferencing. Set up a browser home page with bookmarks to the user's favourite sites and set cookies so they're logged in automatically. If letter-writing is a priority, have it load a word processor with a template ready to go. For social networks, go through the privacy settings together; these are complicated at any age. Use the web browser settings to specify a default typeface and minimum size to ensure that web pages will be readable.
Make a crib sheet with commonly needed commands. Include, for example, the command to enlarge the type size on the web page being viewed and the basic commands needed to operate their favourite software. For email, that might be creating and sending a new message; for word processing how to open and save a new document. Keep it as simple as possible, but make sure to cover all the main points.
You will wind up spending some time providing technical support, but will have enriched someone's life.
Find out how you can help someone get online with the BBC's Give an Hour campaign.
Wendy M. Grossman is a freelance technology writer and author living in London and is founder of The Skeptic magazine.