The 97-year-old iPad lover


Lots of us like new technology, but few of us would imagine we’d still be embracing it in our 90s. Perhaps it’s to be expected from a man like Robert Reidy, a former test pilot who is celebrating his birthday today

IN HIS COMFORTABLE kitchen in Malahide, in north Co Dublin, Robert Reidy is showing me his new iPad. “Have you seen one of these before?” he asks. “You can do all sorts of things with it.” There’s nothing unusual about this scene – apart from the fact that today is Reidy’s 97th birthday. While many people half his age are reluctant to engage with new technology, Reidy has embraced it.

Reidy first went online in the late 1990s, when his daughter Joan, who lives with him, got him one of the first iMac computers. He soon became adept at navigating the internet, but when his iMac became outdated and his replacement Mac proved more complicated, Joan decided to get him a lightweight iPad.

Reidy has been getting to know his new toy – he has been reading the Irish Times letters page on it – but finds some aspects hard to get used to. Like many much younger users, he find the touchscreen keyboard frustrating. “One of its drawbacks is that it’s terribly sensitive, and if you let your fingers stray things will happen that you didn’t want to happen. It’s not so easy to type on.” But he does appreciate the way he can change the size of the text by drawing his fingers across the screen. “That is good, so that I can read with my failing eyesight.”

Born in 1913, Reidy grew up in London with his parents, an Irish journalist and legal clerk and his English wife, who was a teacher. He was always interested in new technology. “I was very interested in radio when I was young,” he says. “But you can imagine, being 97, I’ve seen a lot of [technological] changes.” He put together his own radios, and later made his own speakers. In 1936, having graduated from the University of London, he “dropped into the flying world by accident”. He was training to become an accountant, but, he says, “to get some additional spending money I joined the Volunteer Reserve of the Royal Air Force.” When the second World War broke out he was called up; he spent the war in the RAF, testing fighter planes.

He moved to Ireland in 1946. “I’d spent some time in the North, where I met my future wife [Patricia], who was a Waaf [a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force], and she captured me! We got married in 1946 and moved to Dublin.” He joined Aer Lingus, where he was a pilot for 14 years, before moving to the department of transport and power, where he was chief aeronautical officer and accident investigator.

Reidy knows that many older people are intimidated by new technology. “Of course they are,” he says. “It is intimidating, partly because of all the jargon that these so-called experts insist on using. It has put me off too – but not sufficiently to eliminate my interest.”

This feeling isn’t eased by the rapidity of technological advances. “It can be overwhelming, the speed at which things move these days,” he says. “Things change much faster now, and it isn’t altogether a good thing. It puts people too much in the disposable class. People can get left behind, whether they like it or not.”

But it seems that there’s no chance of Reidy getting left behind. He clearly has a passion for learning more about the world: he says his favourite sites are Google, Wikipedia, Google Maps, and The biggest advantage of the internet, he says, “is being able to find out about things. It has absolutely amazed me that this Google organisation has somehow acquired fantastic amounts of knowledge about things and can spit it out to you if you type in a few words. And I don’t know who runs this Wikipedia page, but it’s a fantastic arrangement, so much information.”

He hasn’t given up on print media, however. “I have been reading The Irish Times [on the iPad], but only to a small extent, because I’m really still only learning how to use it. And I find handling a newspaper easier than fiddling with the controls of a computer.”

And he’s not impressed by some of the nastiness of the internet. “The internet was an immensely honest organisation, but now it is full of crookedness. Everything on this unfortunate planet is vilified. But,” he adds, “it’s also a marvellous thing.”

So what would his youthful radio-loving self have thought had he been told that one day he’d be able to use a tiny machine to read newspapers and call up information on everything you can think of? “I would have thought it was incredible,” he says, and smiles. “It’s unbelievable what can be done by these things.”

Silver surfers Why age is no barrier to the internet

Robert Reidy isn’t the only older person to have embraced the internet. Tonight at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin the second 3 Silver Surfer Awards with Age Action will celebrate older internet users.

The shortlist includes 88-year-old Mabel Gargan, who uses the net for everything from shopping to Skyping her grandchildren, and 80-year-old Austin Clerkin, who has embraced social networking. “It’s all about encouraging people,” says Age Action event manager Ciara Sherlock. “The biggest problem with getting older people online is the fear factor. Many older people think they’re going to break the computer. But once they get over that fear they really get into it.”

Age Action has been offering classes in computer skills but has had to cancel many of them after losing government funding. (It’s hoping for sponsorship.) Such classes are important, not least because many older people feel disconnected from a world in which even familiar radio programmes urge listeners to e-mail or tweet.

“What comes across in the classes is that people just want to know what these things mean, so they can choose whether or not to use them,” says Sherlock. “But at the moment they’re not always getting the chance to engage.” As well as that, internet access “is a great way to combat isolation and allow older people to communicate with relatives abroad”, says Sherlock.

“We see people using the internet for booking flights, looking up recipes and researching hobbies and pastimes, but communicating with relatives is huge. They want to learn how to use Skype and e-mail and Facebook.”

Age Action aims to continue inspiring them. “Last year’s Silver Surfer winner was 96. When we had classes we’d give a speech about overcoming fear, and I’d tell the class that she’s 96 and she Skypes her grandchildren all over the world. And people think, Well, if she can do it I can try and do it. The more role models older people have, the better.”