Learning > Inspiration

Helping seniors overcome tech phobia

Let them see the usefulness of technology and understand their individual needs and challenges to motivate them to pick up digital skills, say experts

Venessa Lee on 21 Jun 2020

The Straits Times


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Mr Terence Goh's children have tried to give him a mobile phone many times, but he has refused.


The retired security supervisor says he is mostly at home, so friends can reach him on his landline. Besides, he has a dread of smartphones and computers.


"As far as technology goes, I am zero. I am 85 years old, what more can I learn?" says the widower, who lives alone with a domestic helper. He has two children and three grandchildren.


He fears making mistakes or being scammed if he uses a smartphone. "I've read about people being cheated and having information dug out of them. I have a fear that if I use a mobile phone incorrectly, people may use messages to fool me and I might fall for it," he adds, voicing his worries.


As Singapore moves towards greater digitalisation, some seniors like him feel left behind.


Society is "advancing and going forward, but I am stagnant", he bemoans.


Anxieties surrounding technology run deep for some of these seniors, extending far beyond concerns like access to hardware.


Observers say that tech phobia needs to be addressed at its root before those who suffer from it can be supported in embracing digital tools. And not everyone who feels left behind is elderly.


In recent years, more seniors have become IT-savvy, amid a slew of government programmes to boost digital skills among the elderly.


The latest such initiative was the launching of the SG Digital Office (SDO), announced at the end of last month.


Under the SDO, 1,000 digital ambassadors will be hired this month to help seniors, hawkers and market vendors learn digital skills. The aim is to intensify outreach efforts to the hardest-to-reach segments of society.


Based on the Infocomm Usage In Households And By Individuals survey last year, at least 76 per cent of seniors aged 60 and above used an Internet-enabled feature phone or smartphone last year. In 2013, only 18 per cent of such seniors used these devices.


The survey is conducted annually by the Infocomm Media Development Authority.


Dr Thang Leng Leng, co-director of the Next Age Institute at the National University of Singapore, which seeks to address complex social issues, says this digital divide among seniors should be addressed.


She adds: "If we are aiming towards being an inclusive society, there is a need to help those who are tech-phobic to ease their fear over time. Perhaps their tech-savvy peers can help influence them as well."


Mr Kelvin Lee, manager at Touch Caregivers Support, Touch Community Services, says a mistrust of technology may mask other fears that seniors find difficult to talk about.


Having a relationship of trust, such as through Touch's community programmes targeted at the elderly, may reveal other sensitivities and concerns that hinder some seniors from learning basic digital skills.


"It's not only about imparting the confidence to handle the technology, but also their having the confidence to interact with the trainer," he says.


Mr Lee has also encountered elderly Touch clients with low incomes who inquire about financial details such as how much it costs to charge a smartphone.


"The seniors will usually hesitate to mention sensitive topics unless they have a prior relationship with you. Then, they may say, 'Actually, I'm illiterate' or 'My son does not want me to get a mobile phone', perhaps because of an estranged relationship," he says.


Mr Anthony Tay, chairman of Lions Befrienders Service Association (Singapore), notes that the main group of seniors served by his social service agency, who are not using smartphones or other digital devices, are those aged 70 and older who may have problems reading or understanding formal languages.


Seniors may have myriad reasons for resisting technology, he adds, ranging from not believing there are benefits to using the Internet to vision loss to eye diseases like glaucoma.


"Social isolation is another concern. Some older people are rejecting online interaction as they welcome the social benefits of daily face-to-face contact when interacting with others," he says.


Industry insiders say that trainers, whether they are family members or strangers, need to understand seniors' individual needs and challenges to motivate them to pick up digital skills.


Training that involves repetition and guidance would also be more effective than one-off workshops to teach seniors how to use a smartphone or app, says Mr Tay.


Ms Peh Kim Choo, chief executive officer of the Tsao Foundation, says: "As long as the older people see its usefulness, they will work to overcome their fear of technology."


An example is hawker Siti Latifah Yusop, 68, who is considering adopting e-payments for her food stall, Dari Dapur Mama Pah, in Bedok North. This is despite the fact that she does not know how to use Google on her smartphone and pays her workers and suppliers in cash.


Ultimately, Associate Professor Carol Ma, who heads gerontology programmes at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, says the environment plays an instrumental role in promoting the adoption of technological tools.


She points to the example of WeChat, the leading messaging and social media app in China.


It has been embraced by seniors there because of its diverse applications, such as hailing rides and making e-payments and travel bookings.


In September 2016, the number of active WeChat users over the age of 55 was 7.68 million. In September 2017, the number rocketed several times over to 50 million, according to a Xinhua report.


For some seniors, though, the ability to connect with family and friends is reason enough to learn digital tools that are unfamiliar to them.


During the stay-in circuit breaker period, housewife Maimunah Abdul Gani, 63, asked one of her five sons to teach her how to make WhatsApp video and audio calls. "I wanted to see the faces of my sisters and brothers, and laugh and joke with them," she says.


Before the Covid-19 pandemic, she called them on her landline. After she reads WhatsApp messages sent to her, she does not reply, but calls the other party instead.


Her son Alfian Afandi, 36, a rope access technician, concedes that is an improvement from the past. He quips: "She uses her phone as a pager."




When 22 seniors teamed up in a virtual choir recently, choir conductor Khor Ai Ming, 49, sensed apprehension.


Over four weekly sessions on Zoom in April and last month, which intersected with the circuit breaker period, Ms Khor, an award-winning soprano singer and conductor, trained the seniors, all aged above 60, to sing What A Wonderful World and Smile.


The video tribute to front-line workers during Covid-19 features solo and small-group singing, as well as footage of the seniors engaged in their hobbies.


The participants in the video, titled An Undefeated Mind, were part of a pilot study organised by the NUHS (National University Health System) Mind Science Centre.


One of the participants, Mrs Eileen Bygrave, 77, a retired fashion and communications consultant, found it challenging to do the video recordings. Even though she uses banking and ride-hailing apps, she still has a residual fear of technology.


"It's generational. Because you're not brought up to use the PC, you feel insecure when you touch things on the screen and they start to groove," says the widowed grandmother.


Using video-conferencing tool Zoom to conduct a choir presented many technological challenges for all, including Ms Khor, who is also artistic director of choral group Vocal Associates.


First, she had to mute everyone who signed into each Zoom session, so she could not hear the seniors singing. Everyone could hear her, but not one another.


At first, she sang the lines one by one, repeating each line a few times. When the seniors sang along, they sang to themselves.


None of them had any experience singing in public. Some were painfully shy.


Ms Khor asked them to do audio and video recordings of themselves, which often involved them toggling between their tablet or laptop with Zoom on, and their smartphones, which they used to record themselves singing.


They would send her these recordings via WhatsApp.


She would then play the recordings in private and send them individual feedback, including comments on the shapes of their open mouths on Zoom, by which she gauged how they were sounding the notes.


Ms Khor says: "I had to spend a lot of time teaching them how to use the technology. Some of them didn't know how to do recordings or where to find the camera icon on their smartphone."


But it all came together in the end, in a video they are all proud of, which is now on the Facebook page of Mind Science Centre (bit.ly/2AGQM8s).


Former minister and Speaker of Parliament, Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, 75, appears in the video with his 73-year-old wife. He plays a cello in the footage, an instrument he picked up only after retiring in 2011.


He says: "I looked at the virtual choir experience as an opportunity to learn. It's a state of mind. You have to be open to technology unless you want to isolate yourself in today's world."


Venessa Lee


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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