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The age of the silver surfer

From online banking to entertainment to staying in touch with family and friends – for older people, digital technology is a skill worth learning

Since 2006, about 30,000 Irish people aged 55 and over have taken programmes like ‘Getting Started’ to help them learn to use digital technology. Photograph: iStock

Since 2006, about 30,000 Irish people aged 55 and over have taken programmes like ‘Getting Started’ to help them learn to use digital technology. Photograph: iStock


As everything from Government services, banking, news, entertainment and shopping moves online, it’s becoming more important for people of all ages to learn some basics about computers, tablets and mobiles. For older people, the benefits of digital technology include staying in touch with family and friends via email or through messaging apps.

They can keep up to date with the news or have their groceries delivered. Online banking lets people pay bills easily without the hassle of walking or driving to a bank branch. Most utility providers have websites that let people view and pay their bills online, and often provide discounts for online-only bills – giving the potential to save money as well as time.

Digital services like TV channel players or subscription services like Netflix make it easy to watch shows on a tablet, which can help older people who may have difficulty seeing or hearing a TV at the far side of a sitting room.

Some older people have embraced all this and more: this year’s open eir Silver Surfer award-winners included 65-year-old Margaret Byrne, who blogs about hand crafts and is very active on social media, and 98-year-old David Rowe, who tracks planning applications online and makes submissions to his local county development plan.

Not everyone is as eager: 2017 CSO figures tell us that 46 per cent of Irish people aged between 60 and 74 have never used the internet. “It’s a huge skill gap in a lot of people. There’s anxiousness about learning technology, and some people with a lot of previous education can still be nervous about it,” says Siobhan Connolly, a project officer for Age Action’s ‘Getting Started’ programme for the north Leinster region.

Since 2006, about 30,000 Irish people aged 55 and over have taken programmes like ‘Getting Started’ to help them learn to use digital technology. Not only do they have the satisfaction of acquiring new skills – staying mentally active in the process – there’s also a direct social aspect from learning in a public setting, since many of the courses take place in libraries or community centres. “They can stay in touch with family and friends better, and, in some cases, it can help to guard against isolation – both through using technology to communicate, and in taking classes to learn about it,” says Connolly.

Essential skills

A typical course runs for two hours a week over five weeks. Volunteers are assigned one-to-one, so they can walk the learner through the process of using technology at their own pace. The student’s comfort with technology dictates how much they cover, but the time is usually enough for them to grasp essential skills like managing email, downloading apps, and how to take and send photos from their tablet or phone. The CSO data reveals the most popular internet activities for older people: top of the list is finding information on goods and services, followed by email, reading the news, internet banking and seeking health-related information.

In the time since the Age Action courses began, the technological tools to allow older people to explore the digital world have undergone a radical transformation. Laptops and PCs can seem intimidating to people who have never used them before; by contrast, touchscreen smartphones and tablets are much more intuitive and easier to use.

“Anyone at any age can learn: even people in their 90s are using smartphones. We reassure them that they can gain confidence and overcome the fear. Beginners experience more success quickly on touchscreen devices. Phones are something you carry around all the time and it’s handy to look things up on the internet,” says Connolly.

The CSO tells us that few retirees like to upload their own content, so for now silver surfers are unlikely to morph into selfie surfers. But as they’ve noticed their own children and grandchildren with their heads bowed towards their screens, they at least have the satisfaction of knowing what all the fuss is about.