Does technology stress you out? Start with small wins and slow down to learn more.

4 min read

As the holiday gift-giving season kicks into gear, you may unwrap a present that engenders more dread than pleasure.

Hint: After charging it for hours, it still may not work and comes with a steep learning curve.

Worst of all, your friends and family plead with you to use it.

Where does that leave you if you dislike technology?

From assistive devices to tablets, there’s an ever-expanding array of technologies geared to older adults. Even televisions are “smart” to the point where you’ll feel stupid using the remote control(s).

Lots of older adults get flustered with tech tools. Individuals with early cognitive impairment are especially vexed by technology. They can get upset when a well-meaning person tries to teach them a new gadget.

According to a 2020 survey by Candoo Tech, a New York-based firm that provides tech support and training for older adults, 53% of older respondents said learning new tech devices—such as a computer or cellphone—produced more anxiety and fear than going to the dentist, doctor and hearing a strange noise at night.

To overcome your fear, start by taking it slow. If you’re impatient by nature, pretend you’ve got all the time in the world to get acquainted with your new device.

“Don’t rush through it,” said Tobey Dichter, founder and chief executive of Generations on Line, a nonprofit group that helps seniors gain tech literacy. “Don’t try to do it when you’re pressed for time. Stay calm and be prepared to plow through it.”

Ideally, you enlist a tech maven as your guide. Just make sure you’re able to tamp down your bouts of frustration.

If a friend or family member tutors you, beware of erupting in negativity. You may feel more comfortable venting anger if your instructor is someone close to you.

“If you can, it’s sometimes better to use a third party,” said Liz Hamburg, founder and chief executive of Candoo Tech. “That way, you don’t feel embarrassed in front of your neighbor or grandchild” who’s helping you.

The best way to learn is to proceed in stages. If your trainer races through too many steps at once, it’s tough to keep up.

Some seniors struggle with their short-term memory. They may not retain the right sequence of steps to navigate an app or stream movies, but they’re more likely to remember if they master one step at a time.

Good instructors let the older person demonstrate each task before advancing to the next. They thus create what Dichter calls “reinforcement mechanisms” every step of the way.

“Once you perform each step, like moving a mouse a certain way, it’s a reinforcement,” she said. “By learning in chunks, you’re building confidence and muscle memory. That’s better than running through a long list of to-do steps and cramming too much into one session.”

If you learn new technology in stages, you can appreciate each benefit that it delivers. Recognizing that you can identify birdcalls using the free Merlin Bird ID app can motivate you to see what else your phone can do.

“Start small with small wins,” Hamburg said. “Feeling empowered by doing something that enhances your own life” can chip away at your fear of technology.

She cites the example of a woman in her 80s living alone in an assisted-living facility who “was shaking [with anxiety] whenever she called our tech concierge.” Upon receiving a Samsung smartwatch, she learned about its fall alert feature: The watch would automatically notify her emergency contact if she fell.

“She got so excited by that,” Hamburg said. “She started asking all these other questions about what else the watch could do, like sleep monitoring.”

Even if you see the potential benefits of new technology, brace for setbacks. Your phone can run out of juice. The remote on your fancy new TV can prove annoying. Virus alert warnings can pop up on your computer screen (don’t click on them—it’s a scam!).

If you run into trouble, cut yourself some slack. It’s tempting to think you are the problem and tech-savvy users never face such frustration.

“Don’t blame yourself if something doesn’t work properly,” said Wendy Rogers, Khan professor of applied health sciences at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “It sometimes reduces your frustration to blame the product design or the poor instructions that come with it.”

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