IN this technological age, society assumes everyone is now online.
And that’s a problem for the estimated 70% of older people in Ireland who don’t even own a computer.
“There’s a barrier,” explains Eamon Timmins, head of advocacy and communication with Age Action. “People who left school at 12 think they can’t learn technology because they’re not educated. Or they think, ‘why would I bother?’ They think, ‘there’s nothing on the internet for me’.”
In fact, Timmins says, new technology has much more relevance to and potential uses for the elderly and the housebound, than for the general population. And if he can persuade people to take the one-to-one computer course offered by Age Action, they never look back.
“One woman, who’s in her early 60s, writes a blog about genealogy and social history,” he says. “Before the course she’d never even read a blog, and she now has 20,000 followers.”
Skype has proved hugely popular. “A man who died last year at 102, used to talk to his son, a missionary in Fiji, on Skype. When his son left, he thought he’d never see him again.’”
Timmins suggests families should club together to buy their parents a laptop for Christmas. And if they’re visiting, they can help their parents learn the skills, with the aid of an online course, called www.getyourfolksonline.ie
“If you’re not online, you’re missing out on so much; from seeing your grandchildren do Irish dancing on Skype, to learning just about anything and everything on YouTube,” says Timmins.
Mary Nally of Third Age agrees. “We’ve been giving computer classes for years now,” she says. “Being online is an aid against loneliness. It breaks down the barriers because people can remain connected to their friends around the world.”
Marie O’Gorman, 78, will be spending hours on Skype on Christmas day. It’s a great way of keeping up with her 19 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. And a big feature of this year’s present haul, will be trendy loopy scarves. Marie taught her grandchildren in Armenia how to make them. And it was all done on Skype. “I learned how to make them myself first,” explains Marie. “Then I taught them on Skype which took a couple of goes.” It was all so different eight years ago when the family first left for Armenia. “I’ve been a widow for 20 years now, and I live alone. So I missed them like crazy,” says Marie. “I’d send a letter which might take six weeks, and if I tried to send money by registered post, it didn’t get there.
“When a friend gave me a computer, I made lots of mistakes. But I was determined to communicate with the family. I did a course at Age Action and that was a Godsend. I did a more advanced course, then in 2009 I won a laptop, as the most dedicated learner at the Silver Surfers Awards.
“I Skype my great-grandchildren in Australia, too. There’s a boy of four and a girl of three. They’ll run off and show me their presents. We’ll spend at least an hour on Skype so everyone can have their say.
“I’ve made new friends through computers and have a whole new life. I text too. I text my granddaughter all the time. I use the shortcuts like 4 for four, and some girl who saw a text said, ‘who sent you that?’ When she said it was her grandma, the girl said, ‘isn’t she cool!’”
Michael Meally, now 70, decided to take a computer course when he first witnessed one in action. A garda superintendent, he was liaising with Mary Nally of Third Age, over an initiative to provide the elderly with alarms.
“I walked in and saw six people sitting at computers,” he says. “Amongst them was a 92 year old man, and a woman in her 80s. I joined a class when I retired, and have been using a computer since.”
He’s used it to explore genealogy; to research the history of a local football club; to pay his car tax, his toll charges and and to book holidays on line. It’s helped his golf, too.
“I book my tee times on line, and I get tips each day from an American website to improve my chipping,” he says.
Big into photography, Michael loves recording family events onto video. He downloads the videos, and saves them on discs for all the family. He and his wife shop at stores like Arnotts online, and he loves emailing his relatives who live abroad. It brings them all closer at Christmas.
“I’d never get down to writing them a letter,” he says, “but it’s easy to email 10 or 12 lines.”
Michael doesn’t use his Facebook account, but he loves using text, and he adores his iPad. It’ll be in full use at Christmas, for keeping in touch with his daughter, who will be in Australia.
“I love Face Time,” he says. “Most of my family live nearby; I have six grandchildren, but when they’re sick, and we can’t see them, Face Time is great for seeing and speaking to them. It was lovely at Halloween to see the kids all dressed up. Technology really has enhanced my life.”
Maura O’Keefe, 68, has bad arthritis, back problems and a damaged arm. Pretty immobile, technology is hugely important to her. But when her grandson first suggested she should try a computer, she felt that, at 56 it wasn’t for her. “He set me up with Microsoft Word, and suggested I write a letter to his granda. I did and it felt good.”
After her husband died, Maura took a computer course, doing so well, that she ended up working part-time with Third Age. These days, she’s at home full-time. And she’s now so computer literate, she managed to put in more memory, without help.
“Many is the time my daughter has rung me, saying, ‘How do I do this?’ And many of my friends can’t work a computer. I book flights for them, and they give me the money. And I’ve used cheap flights to go to Cork or Birmingham just for the day.”
With Skype, Maura never feels lonely. “My grandson is in Salamanca, as part of his Spanish Course at Trinity in Dublin,” she says. “We Skype every three weeks, and he’s shown me his flat. And when my son and his family go on holidays, they show me the beach and the shoreline.”
Right now, Maura is busy making jewellery.
“I watch the jewellery channel, and record it on Sky Plus,” she says. “I buy my wire and beads on eBay, or from an English company. I give them an address in Antrim, and use ‘Parcel Motel’ to have it delivered to a local collection point.
“I’ll give it away for Christmas, and sell some at local fairs,” she says. And, thinking big, she says she might start selling her jewellery on eBay. “It’s a wonderful interest,” she says.
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