Specialized Ministries

Older adults engage with technology

As some people age, they find that their limited knowledge and experience with computers hinders their ability to do some of the things they want to do. Several United Methodist congregations have come to their aid with computer classes that provide older adults and others with the skills they need to stay connected with family and friends and engage the larger world.

Cypress United Methodist Church in Texas began offering courses three years ago. Joe Jones, who worked with computers extensively before he retired, leads the classes to help others in the seniors' group that meets at his church.

Jones began with a computer basics class. Additional classes have introduced the Internet, email and Microsoft Word and Excel. A special class focused on copying and pasting. Classes meet during the day, since many older adults do not like to drive at night. All classes have been full.

Trinity United Methodist Church in Ruston, La., has offered computer classes for 15 years. Most participants have been older adults, though the congregation advertises the classes to the community. "It has been the most fun, rewarding ministry that I've ever been a part of with the church," says Donna Belcher, who has taught classes since the program began.

Her students agree, calling Belcher "the world's most excellent teacher." Elizabeth Green, who has taken all the classes, appreciates how Belcher "goes through it step by step and is very clear and very patient."

This is important for teaching computer skills. Jones says many older adults have difficulty getting their children and grandchildren to explain things to them without skipping steps or losing patience.

Green began taking classes at Trinity more than five years ago. She now does the calendar for her book group and stitch club. "They think I'm some kind of whiz," she says. While Green is a member of the church, she says, "We have had a lot of people come to Trinity who probably wouldn't have darkened the door if it [weren't] for these computer classes."

‘A shortcut for many things'

More and more older adults are already living in the digital realm.

Baby boomers have been early adopters of technology, says the Rev. William Randolph, director of the Office of Aging and Older Adult Ministries with the General Board of Discipleship. "It becomes a shortcut for so many things," Randolph says. For others, the technology often "becomes a place to buy things, to do research." No longer do older adults just send email and photos to one another.

Randolph points to video-calling programs like Skype as a way older adults enjoy connecting with their younger and distant family members. He also says shut-ins may participate in worship by watching video streams or downloading sermons, though this number remains small.

Many older senior adults still will not touch computers, says Randolph. Instead, they prefer to make a phone call. Nevertheless, many older adults do go online to research, take classes or receive training.

One wealthy woman at a retirement community where Randolph was formerly a chaplain went online regularly to investigate places where she might want to donate her money.

Retired corporate executives use a site to connect with young entrepreneurs. Many retirees now read digital books.

Facebook is the social media platform of choice for users 50 years old and older.

Video technologies, including those now available on phones, are useful tools for recording the life stories of older adults. This can be a family activity where the younger members interview the older ones. People also use videos at the time of death as a way to remember the life of a loved one. Families often find it helpful to put these videos together while the loved ones are still alive.

Older adults who use technology to engage with each other, family and friends and to further their interests often find their later years becoming more enjoyable. Congregations can support these efforts by offering classes and by encouraging older adults to use technology and recording their stories to share with younger generations.

Andrew J. Schleicher is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tenn.

By the numbers: Older adults on the Web

An article in the June 8, 2013, Huffington Post ("Senior technology: 5 Facts about How Post 50s Are Using the Internet,") cited a Google study of how more than 6,000 baby boomers (ages 45 to 66) and seniors (67 and older) use the Internet.

The study by Ispos reported that 78 percent of boomers and 52 percent of seniors are online. The two groups spend an average of 19 hours on the Internet each week, more than with TV, radio and magazines/newspapers.

According to the Pew Research Center Internet report released in January 2014, 74 percent of online adults now use a social networking site of some kind. Facebook remains the platform of choice.

Here is how the 50-and-older demographic uses social media.

  • Facebook — 71 percent of online adults
    • Ages 50-64: 60 percent
    • Age 65 and older: 45 percent, up from 35 percent in 2012
  • LinkedIn — 22 percent of online adults
    • Ages 50-64: 24 percent
    • Ages 65 and older: 13 percent
  • Pinterest — 21 percent of online adults
    • Ages 50-64: 14 percent
    • Age 65 and older: 9 percent
  • Twitter — 19 percent of online adults
    • Ages 50-64: 11 percent
    • Age 65 and older: 5 percent
  • Instagram — 17 percent of online adults
    • Ages 50-64: 6 percent
    • Age 65 and older: 1 percent

For the full report, go to www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/social-networking-fact-sheet/

Barbara Dunlap-Berg


Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, November–December 2014.