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10 Tips to Teach E-mail to Older Adults

In Brief: Never before have families and friends so frequently found such distance between each other. Mobility characterizes the lives of young people, who leave hometowns and families in search of education and work. Older generations also find themselves farther from home as they travel and maintain retirement retreats in balmy climates.

Given that more than 350,000 Americans hit "senior citizen" status each year, it's worthwhile to learn how best to teach older adults to communicate in the digital world.

However, if the frequency of e-mail usage for inter-family communication is any indication, distance may, in fact, make the heart grow fonder. For many older adults, e-mail is the most popular way to stay in touch with families and friends. But barriers can still exist between older adults and the technology that promises a connection to family.

People who teach older adults in the use of e-mail and the Internet will be most successful if they embark on the effort with some background information. Given that more than 350,000 Americans hit "senior citizen" status each year, it's worthwhile to learn how best to teach older adults to communicate in the digital world.

Educators know that the teaching format for a preschooler varies greatly from that of a third-grader. This bears true for adults of varying ages, as well. And while there are a number of specific physical and mental barriers to consider when instructing adults over the age of 65, none of these potential barriers is independently, or in combination, a deterrent to seniors who wish to use the Internet to stay connected with friends or family. As most educators will attest, strong motivation helps to overcome limitations.

Still, extra steps should be taken to ensure a positive experience for older adults, when exploring the world of technology. Examination of best practices for teaching older adults reveals ten key tips to address the most common age-related barriers, documented in Figure 1.

Teaching Strategies Age-Related Barriers
1-Patience and repetition
  • Cognitive abilities
  • Memory
2-Jargon or language
  • Cognitive abilities
  • Memory
3-Design of course material
  • Visual abilities
4-Hands-on Training
  • Cognitive abilities
  • Memory
  • Manual dexterity
5-Small Blocks of Instruction
  • Cognitive abilities
  • Memory
  • Mobility
  • General decline in health
6-Encourage questions and answers
  • Memory
7-Flexibility
  • Visual abilities
  • Hearing
  • Mobility
  • General decline in health
8-Speak slowly and clearly
  • Hearing
  • Memory
9-Place Student at Ease
  • Cognitive abilities
  • Memory
  • Mobility
  • General decline in health
10-Teach One Topic at a Time
  • Cognitive abilities
  • Memory

Figure 1: Strategies to teach older adults to use the internet and e-mail, aligned with age-related barriers

Seasoned educators will recognize that these teaching strategy tips are not much different than those for any other age group. However, the benefits of successful instruction are significant. The ability to use the Internet and e-mail provides older adults a significant life-enhancement: the power to connect with loved ones, regardless of physical distance.

References:

(Selected citations only)

  • Bean, C., (2003). Meeting the Challenge: Training an Aging Population to Use Computers. Southeastern Librarian 51(3).
  • Bean, C. and Laven, M., (2003). Adapting to Seniors: Computer Training for Older Adults. Retrieved September 16, 2005 from The University of Arizona, School of Resources and Library Science website at Digital Library for Information Science and Technology.
  • US Census Bureau, (2004). Age Data. Retrieved September 177, 2005 from U.S. Census Bureau.

Research Paper Author: J. Michael Cuciti—2005 AIM Graduate, Owner/Systems Integrator, CBM Computer Solutions

Abstract: Each year 351,000 people become senior citizens (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). As families disperse geographically, there is a need for older adults to learn to use technology as a communication tool to remain connected to family. This study examines age-related barriers that hinder learning and identifies strategies and design considerations best suited to older adults. Guidelines, grounded in andragogy (Knowles, in Bean, 2003) are provided to assist instructors who teach older adults in face-to-face environments.

Download the entire Capstone research project