As Computers Evolve, Tutoring Seniors Must Also Evolve – But How?

Helping seniors to become computer literate is a moving target. New skills are needed as new devices become popular, and new techniques need to be developed to meet the need of seniors wanting to become computer literate. The same goes for non-seniors with special needs.

A few years ago one of the most frequent requests was for help in using a mouse. People with limited flexibility in their fingers due to arthritis and other issues of aging have difficulty holding a mouse steady while attempting to click an icon. It is challenging when your fingers do not go where you want them to go, and then when you do get to the target, trying to hold the mouse steady while moving one finger to click is another challenge. A standard ploy I use is to urge them to drag a little finger on the mousepad and then clamp it tightly against the pad and the side of the mouse while also pressing the opposite side with their thumb before attempting a click.

For many seniors suffering from loss of flexibility, turning a scroll wheel can also be a challenge. For them, using the auto scroll function might be a good alternative, but many of them do not know about this handy feature.

Along with loss of flexibility, loss of visual acuity is a problem. Windows offers several alternatives to the standard display themes, including extra large print, high contrast display, and magnification for those with severe sight impairment.

By the way, if you are setting up a PC workstation for seniors, please be advised that we all wear bifocals or gradient glasses. If you set the monitor on top of the computer to save desk space, senior users will be forced to bob up and down to switch vision from monitor to keyboard or other desktop material. A roomful of seniors working at such stations resemble a flock of birds bobbing up and down for feed. Being sensitive to the limitations of senior eyesight requires a lower monitor. Some thought should also be given to how far the monitor is from a user’s face. Putting it back farther than usual might allow a senior to focus on it with mid-range and focus on the desktop with close-range. Tablets and laptops do not share this difficulty.

But along with the rest of the population, seniors are rapidly adopting tablets and smartphones instead of being tied to classic desktop or laptop computers. This is one aspect of the moving target for a tutor. The skills needed to navigate a tablet hampered with arthritis are different than those for handling a mouse.

Then there is the always delicate issue of discussing how to overcome an aging-related difficulty with a client who does not want to admit to having a difficulty. Sometimes the psychological hurdles are greater than the physical ones. Recently I had a class of seniors in a hands-on PC workshop. One of the women was having a difficult time with the practice exercise while the others were doing it with no problem. She was alert and obviously following the class, so what was the problem? A look at her hands showed crooked fingers and swollen joints. She was being frustrated by her inability to maneuver the mouse and click. Without thinking, I suggested to her that given her difficulties, she should try to grip the mouse differently. But before I could explain what I meant, she shot me a withering look which eloquently said. “I have lived more than 70 years, given birth to children, raised them, and support myself as a widow, and you are not going to tell me that I am deformed just because this damned mouse will not go where I want it. So watch your language!” This was before I had said anything more than to suggest she hold the mouse differently.

Nothing is gained in such a situation by continuing down that path. I nodded to her and suggested that if she wanted any help, I would be available.

In the same class, a man sitting at the next computer was having similar difficulties with simple mouse manipulation. I asked if he would like some pointers on how he might be able to improve his performance. He gratefully said yes. So we worked for a few minutes on how to stabilize the mouse while clicking, and I showed him how to vary the mouse speed through the control panel to better meet his needs. All the time while talking to him, I ignored the first woman even though I noted she was watching us. Before the session ended, she had made considerable progress and had essentially adopted my suggestions. If it works for her, then it works for me.

This class was a laboratory using standard PCs. However, in the computer clubs I attend, many of the members have switched to tablets with varying comments on the difficulty of swiping across the tablets. I have yet to formulate a standard presentation suitable for seniors using tablets. One would think that touchscreens present fewer difficulties to operate with limited mobility than a mouse, and that is probably true, but I have seen seniors struggle with multiple-finger manipulations just as they do with a standard mouse.

Even if we do develop protocols to help seniors make the transition from desktop to tablet, how long will those skills be necessary? Last weekend I cleaned up my office and threw out the last of my floppy disks. They are obsolete. CDs are essentially dead. How long will DVDs last? The speech recognition feature that comes standard with Windows is not perfect, but it is much better than the first examples I used some years ago. Will tablets give way to speech-driven devices? What will the next generation of computing things look like? I say “computing things” because the concept of a computer changed with tablets and will change again. And whatever comes next, seniors will have some difficulties that younger people do not face.

CC licensed Flickr image shared by Mike Licht,