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Successful Aging: How can I convince my older parent to use a smartphone?

Q: My father, an 88-year-old retired dentist, lives 3000 miles from me and owns only a flip-top phone. I would like him to have a smartphone so I could text him and he could have my phone number handy should there be an emergency. I doubt he will attend a class on how to use a new device. Is my father typical? What can I do to convince my father to give up his flip-top phone and use a smartphone? S.L.

Dear S.L.

Trying to change a loved one’s comfort zone can be difficult yet may be possible.

Let’s begin by talking about older adults and their use of technology. We know that historically older adults are considered late adapters to new technology compared to those younger. This generational difference is often referred to as the digital divide.

According to the Pew Research Center, there are differences not only between generations but also within the older population. Two groups emerge. The first group is younger, affluent and highly educated. They are tech savvy and see the positive value of online platforms. The second group is older, less affluent and often confronted with physical conditions and disabilities. They are somewhat disconnected from using digital tools both physically and psychologically.

However, the movement of older adults into digital life continues to deepen, according to the Pew Research Center. For example, six in ten older adults now go online and just under half are broadband adopters. Four in 10 older adults own smartphones which is more than twice as much compared to 2013.

When it comes to specific ages, we see differences. Of those over the age of 65, 80 percent have a cell phone and 42 percent have a cell phone that is a smartphone. Note 58 percent of those over 80 years have a cell phone and only 17 percent within this group have a smartphone. Those over age 80 have the lowest rate of smartphone usage compared to other age groups. Your father reflects this trend.

Understanding resistance to smartphones may be step one in trying to convince your father to change.

Here are some of those obstacles facing older adults. In general, they are less confident to learn about and use electronic devices, often referred to as the “digitally unprepared” according to the Pew study. I can relate to this obstacle from my own training and education when we were taught to avoid errors and were penalized for mistakes. That’s not today’s digital mentality. Rather than focusing on errors, the digital generation just tries a different approach; nothing is permanent.

Additional challenges for older adults are physical, such as poor eyesight which makes reading small type difficult. Lack of manual dexterity can make it impossible to manipulate small buttons on a phone with arthritic fingers. Older adults are more likely than those in other age groups to want someone to show them how to use new electronic devices. Sometimes that someone is not available.

Choosing a smartphone can be a challenge given the number of different models available. Here is one designed for older adults that includes text messaging. It’s Jitterbug from GreatCall. Check out their website and others to compare features and costs.

When you have made a decision, hopefully with your father, consider purchasing the phone and then arrange for a visit when you can coach your dad on its use. If a face-to-face visit isn’t possible, recruit a friend or family member.

As part of your pitch, consider developing some scenarios of how a smartphone would be useful. Here are a few examples:

  • “By texting one another, we could be in closer communication, which means not only me but with your grandchildren.”

  • “If there is an emergency, you can contact me easily.”

  • “When practicing dentistry, you were known as being a leader in adapting the newest methods to benefit your patients. You are the same person today.

S.L. Thank you for your good question. Changing a habit is difficult. Hopefully, with reassurance and a compelling case, your father will adapt to a new and better way of communicating.

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