My iPhone rings. These days, only telemarketers call, so I’m tempted to ignore it — but it’s Dad. And he has an emergency.
“Can you come over to fix the Internet?” he asks. “I can’t get online. And my bookmarks are missing.” This is the third time in a week and a half that I’ve been called to “fix” something.
“Okay, Dad,” I reply. “I’ll take a look.”
When I arrive, Dad and Mom sit on the sofa in matching track suits — with laptops open and faces puzzled. “How do I get back home?” Dad asks. The tile design of Windows confuses him. “Where’s the home screen?”
I’d always known I’d have to help him around the house and ferry him to appointments. But I never imagined I’d have to update his antivirus and keep the home network humming. The fast-moving pace of technology left, not just Dad, but an entire generation behind. But it wasn’t always like this.
In the late-70s, Dad was a gadget freak, an early adopter of home electronics. Each month, Consumer Reviews and Popular Electronics arrived in our mailbox, and I’d circle gizmos to fiddle with when we’d drive to RadioShack. One day, Dad walked in with a huge box — he’d bought a desktop computer, an ancient IBM that ran DOS. After we put everything together, he patiently explained to me how to change a floppy disk drive to a hard drive. Then, how to run the programs on it.
“This machine is going to change the world,” he told me. “So you better learn how to use it.” Then, we sat in front of the keyboard and he taught me how to type “help” into the command line.
The IBM didn’t impress me. All it seemed to do was type and print, and the monitor wasn’t even in color — an ugly shade of yellow-and-black. I couldn’t watch TV on it, and few games on it were worthless. Secretly, I was disappointed. I hoped Dad would spring for an Atari. Pong was better.
But, of course, he was right.
Later that year, the school bought a few Commodore 64s, the best-selling computer of the era, and suddenly, the command line was useful.
The National Science Foundation, meanwhile, began to fund super-computing networks across the country. University and military institutions also developed standards for networking, allowing Internet providers to pop up. The groundwork for a revolution had been laid — one that would connect personal computers across the world and share unprecedented amounts of knowledge.
Dad saw it coming, but he wouldn’t be able to keep up.
Machines became faster. Software became more advanced. Interfaces became sleeker. Today, my life is immersed in technology, but somehow Dad eluded its reach. At 80-something-years-old, I suppose companies don’t target his demographic — he’s a working-class immigrant who labored with machinery — but in truth, the pace of innovation simply left him behind.
Critics talk of a “digital divide” between rich and poor, or black and white, but the biggest gap is between the young and old. Half of Americans over 65 are online, according to the Pew Research Internet Project — a paltry number compared to a nearly 100 percent rate among 18-to-29-years-olds. Less than one-in-five seniors have smartphones, compared to four-in-five among 18-to-34-year-olds.
That gap can impact quality of life. Seniors who aren’t online are more prone to isolation and depression, for example, especially if they are confined to the home by physical ailments or see social circles reduced by illness or death.
Sometimes, the high price and confusing use of gadgets deters seniors, but more often, they are their own obstacle. They don’t see what the point is, and don’t want to deal with the hassle of another bill, another remote, another gadget.
Dad is a perfect example. A decade ago, he retired amid a series of lay-offs. After 30 years at the same company, he took a severance package, shortly drew unemployment, and then, officially retired to collect his pension. Part of that package included “career update” classes at the community college — among them, one called, “Introduction to Computers and the Internet.”
The class confused him. Simple tasks took him a long time to grasp: how to compose an e-mail, or how to use the basic IM program. “I just can’t type fast enough to use it,” he’d complain.
When I tried to help him with the homework, he’d just leave me to do it. “Dad, you have to do your own homework,” I’d chide him. “How else are you going to learn if I do it for you?”
He made mistakes, of course. Once, he sent me an e-mail with the entire message written in the subject line. Another time, he clicked on every pop-up window and followed every instruction, thinking they were legitimate messages from his computer. He infected the laptop with so much malware that it took me a month to remove it all.
I gently teased Dad about the gaffes, but I knew he felt self-conscious. Even the most basic aspects of the Internet confused him. And he constantly asked, “How do I get to my bookmarks?”
Teaching Dad became an exercise in diplomacy. And I became impatient the speed he needed to learn the basics. For example, it wasn’t natural for him to right-click to reach more functions. But beyond his unease, a deeper dynamic was at play. He thought of himself as an independent and self-reliant person. Taking the computing class, though, made him realize just how out-of-step he was in the modern world. His day as a contributor and participant in the world-at-large was slowly fading, and even if he wanted to jump back in, the learning curve was steep.
Then, one day, he tossed his computer textbook aside. “Old dogs and new tricks don’t mix,” he declared. After that, he stopped going to class, and instead, spent the time puttering around the garage, reorganizing power tools — secure and confident as he stuck with what he knew.
Since his retirement, he hasn’t been as active. Old age is one reason, but another is a depression that can beset the elderly — particularly men. According to Forbes, one-in-four retirees suffer from mild depression when they leave their life-long careers. Deprived of a daily routine, and no longer the breadwinner, their identity is essentially taken from them. With little to fill that gap, amid financial and health challenges, the world becomes a daunting hurdle.
Dad took one look at that landscape and didn’t even try. It was strange to see him cast it all aside. Growing up, he inspired me to love learning, and yes, even technology. But that once prideful man who was full of curiosity became a shell of his former self, and he spent his days watching old movies on VHS, descending into depression.
His home office is full of obsolete artifacts — video and cassette tapes, even a Walkman. Jokingly, I call it the “Island of Unwanted Devices.” Deep down, though, the sight makes me sad. Dad barricades himself against change, head down as the world spins on around him and leaves him in a cozy yet forgotten bubble.
There’s basic advice out there for navigating the post-retirement blues: experts counsel structuring the day, even if it’s just social time and exercise, as well as maintaining a strong social network and lowering expectations about how the “golden years” are supposed to look and feel.
One way to lessen depression — especially those that live alone — is to get on the Internet, according to Michigan State University. While studies tend to focus on how the Internet and social media can sap our mental health, for the elderly, it can be a valuable lifeline to communicate with friends and family.
The study advises loved ones to slowly and patiently teach their elders to go online, helping them choose devices and apps with clear, easy to navigate interfaces — tablets are better than desktops or laptops, for example, since they’re more portable and easier to use.
The tricky thing about helping a parent through retirement depression, though, is that it’s hard for them to ask and accept help from the very people they once guided and nurtured as children. We live in a culture where old things — whether people or devices — are considered obsolete and cast away, and it’s difficult not to internalize that cultural message on some level. So when I suggested Dad take another class — maybe explore his interests in travel — it fell on deaf ears.
Dad is coming around slowly, though. When he heard “selfie” became the word of the year, he wanted to know more. I took it a step further: I insisted he take one with me. As I snapped away on the iPhone, he got a big kick out of posing with me and seeing it onscreen. Then, I picked the best one and posted it to Facebook and Instagram, titling it as “Dad’s first selfie.”
For the first time, I think he understood the appeal of having real-time connection at his fingertips — of being in touch with a loose network and receiving instant feedback. He still won’t sign up to social media — he insists on using his trusty Nokia — but he makes me check in to Facebook when I come around.
“Let’s take a selfie,” he’ll also suggest, but I think he’s more interested in posing with me, then, running it through filters and posting it online. Taking selfies with Dad has become our strange bonding activity. Normally, I’m not a selfie person, but for Dad, I’m just happy to see him engaged by a very 21st-century activity.
Maybe it’s having a ripple effect. When Mom took a trip a month ago, he picked up the iPad to stay in touch on FaceTime or Google Hangouts. I sat next to him and very slowly guided him on the particulars: how to turn it on and off, how to get back to the home screen, how to find and download apps and get rid of old ones.
I have him practice certain skills repeatedly: find the home button, access e-mail, open Safari and find bookmarks. Overall, the iPad is easier for him to use than that troublesome laptop, which slowly gathers dust on the Island of Unwanted Devices.
Of course, Dad still makes some gaffes. He keeps calling apps, “programs.” “Baby steps,” I tell myself. Lingo isn’t important. I’m simply grateful he shows a willingness to learn and grow with the world around him. “This device is changing the world,” I tell him, as he once did to me. Technology changes, it seems, but curiosity endures.
People talk about a “circle of life” — the cycle of birth, childhood, adulthood and old age. But from a parent-child perspective, that circle is often a role reversal. At some point, kids take on the role of caring for parents, and the shift is fraught with discomfort, denial and vulnerability. We watch a once all-powerful figure adjust to a changing world, and have to become teachers with patience and compassion. It takes time, understanding and the ability to sit with uncomfortable feelings and emotions.
But as I watch Dad scroll through his growing collection of selfies on the iPad, laughing at each memory, it’s worth all the time and patience in the world — even if I have to show him every time how to launch the camera, and remind him to call it an app, and not a program. ♦