Techno-Caregiving: When You're Mom's Help Desk

Related topics: Caregiver Skills, Seniors and the Internet, Senior Lifestyles, Senior Technology

Senior woman calling her son about computer problem

It's the call in the night that every caregiver dreads. No, your elderly relative hasn't fallen or been rushed to the hospital. This time it's a computer virus. Or, Mom clicked on something in Word and now she can't get rid of those page borders. Maybe Grandpa can't access the address book on his smartphone. If you can identify with these scenarios, you're not alone!

More older adults are using computers, tablets and smartphones, and that's great news, say experts. Using these devices for email, web surfing, social networking and video communicating helps keep seniors mentally active and socially connected. They're going online to read the news and learn about their health conditions. They're staying connected with caregivers and their healthcare team with texts, email, online portals and monitoring systems. The AARP reports that one-third of people older than 55 play video games. Says CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, "Video games and apps are truly ageless, offering gamers of all ages — a grandfather as well as his granddaughter — the opportunity to share entertainment and social interactions with one another."

But the digital revolution has opened up a new can of worms for family caregivers, who already do so much to support the well-being of elderly loved ones. It's a myth that seniors aren't computer-savvy. Many are. But many others came late to the game, dragged online because that's where the action — and the family — is today. Computer technology is complicated and ever-evolving. It's hard enough for many younger people, for whom computers are second nature, to keep up!

"In a world where many everyday activities have moved online, caregivers face a new challenge: finding a balance between autonomy and protection of care recipients," said Northwestern University professor Anne Marie Piper. "Technological caregiving is a new form of work. We hear about the physical, financial and social stress of caregiving, but no one ever talks about the burden caregivers feel to keep people active online, which we feel is a fundamental part of participating in society."

Here are eight ways to help older loved ones successfully navigate the new world of connectivity:

Designate a tech-support family member. Maybe you're not so computer-savvy yourself? Who is your go-to person when something crashes? Perhaps a granddaughter or nephew is particularly skilled — and patient. Ask if they will sign on to help your senior relative. These days, many wonderful intergenerational connections are enriched in this very way. Pick someone who you think can communicate and explain things well.

Senior man with tablet computer

Choose the right technology for your loved one's needs. If you're selecting a computer or phone for your loved one, remember that the more bells and whistles, the more complicated the learning curve. Buy from a company that can help you make an informed choice. If your loved one has disabilities such as visual impairment and arthritis, learn about hardware and software accessibility features to help them navigate and read. And if you're the go-to tech support person, having the same operating systems (PC vs. Mac, iPhone vs. Android) is a good idea. The same goes for applications your loved one may be wanting to use, as you may be called upon to help with those as well.

Suggest that your loved one sign up for computer classes. Many computer "problems" stem from a user's unfamiliarity with features of their devices and programs. This is far from a seniors-only challenge, and many organizations and companies offer computer training, but your loved one may be most comfortable in a senior-focused training class. Check out the offerings of your local senior services agency, community college, senior centers, parks and recreation department or your loved one's senior living community. Online courses are also available.

Create a mini user guide. You have a pretty good idea about what your folks want to do with their computer, and how much they know. As you walk them through the computer tasks they'll often be doing, write down step-by-step instructions to serve as a cheat sheet until they have it down. And don't be like "Nick Burns, Your Company's Computer Guy" from the old Saturday Night Live sketches, who would say "Moooooooove!" while he pushed the user aside. If you step in to do something yourself, explain what you're doing.

Be there when you can't be there. It’s hard to help when you can't see what's happening. Use Skype or Facetime to take a peek at the exact problem on your loved one's screen. Here again, having the same program on their computer as you have on yours is a big help. Or better yet, install remote access software to view and take charge of their computer from afar. (In person or remotely, resist the temptation to overdo it while you're logged in by making "helpful" changes to their organization system or desktop icons that will be confusing and NOT helpful!)

Be sure their antivirus software is kept up to date. The criminals who create viruses release new ones nonstop, so it's vital to always have the latest updates to identify and block viruses and other malicious intrusions. (While you're at it, warn them about "scareware" — the ubiquitous fake antivirus programs that pop up and trick users into buying unneeded software or downloading a harmful program.)

Have the safety and security talk. Antivirus software can't ward off all intruders. Just as you install the software, you'll also need to install a bit of skepticism as your loved ones venture online. Warn them about protecting their personal information, phishing and pharming. They should know that scammers might hijack a friend's email … or pretend to be from Microsoft or Apple tech support … or even, in the case of the infamous Grandma Scam, pretend to be you! It can sound pretty scary, but it's empowering to be in the know. Establish a "no question is too dumb" policy: Tell them it's fine to call you if something doesn't seem right.

Call in a professional. If computer help isn't your thing — maybe you need it as much as your loved one does, or you don't have the time or temperament for the task — check out tech support services that charge an hourly rate or an annual subscription fee. These services have been likened to roadside assistance for your computer. Help can be provided in the store, or technicians can remote in to remove a virus, tune up a computer or help with app installation. Some services cater to senior clients, with technicians who are familiar with the learning style of older adults.

Providing tech support for a senior loved one isn't a small thing, many caregivers know. But it pays off in helping your loved one stay connected and engaged. It's truly a labor of love.

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2016 IlluminAge

Previous article