Holy smokes, it’s the silver surfers!

10 Mar 2008

In their rush to be all things cool and trendy, mobile networks and broadband providers are overlooking an important market, the over 55s, with the result that the digital divide continues to widen across sectors of our society.

Not so in Drogheda, Co Louth, however, where almost 755 people aged over 55, including a party of 25 nuns from the Medical Missionaries of Mary, have taken advantage of a little-known government scheme to become adept in the arts of mobile and internet technologies.

The scheme, run by the Department of An Taoiseach, has in the past two years funded the Drogheda Partnership Company with over €100,000 to address a critical societal divide and boost inclusion. The funding came under an Information Society Initiative called Access Skills and Content.

The scheme, which includes internet surfing, digital photography and gadget classes, has also attracted support from Meteor. Staff from the operator’s local store participated in the training and gave the classes free phone credit.

According to Ina McCrumlish, who runs the course, a total of 755 people have attended 93 training groups and there’s a waiting list of over 140 eager learners.

She says the pent-up demand for technology training for over-55s has meant the scheme may be widened to the greater Louth area and even has national potential.

“What we’ve found is there’s a whole generation of people who are missing out on the digital revolution. Over-55s should be given a chance to embrace this tidal wave,” says McCrumlish.

McCrumlish says the Drogheda Partnership Company received €47,640 from the Department of An Taoiseach last year and €55,000 the previous year.

“Meteor came on board because there was a huge waiting list of people wanting to know more about mobile phones. They provided phones and put €100 credit on each phone.

“Response for the gadget and mobile classes was phenomenal, most elderly people aren’t digital natives like the majority of teens and twentysomethings and would love to improve their knowledge of how to use mobile phones. The nuns were the most enthusiastic for the mobile course,” McCrumlish says, adding that the oldest person to take part in the courses so far was 91.

“The computer courses were very popular. Many of the participants saw it as a chance to communicate with grandchildren and took courses on digital photography where they were able to upload photos and email them to relatives living overseas. This has opened up a whole new world to people. Many come to the classes with their own mobile phones and just want to be able to use them properly.”

Gina Kelly, a spokesperson for mobile operator Meteor, says there is a digital divide when it comes to senior citizens understanding technology. “Most people take mobile phones for granted but people aged over 55 want to have a greater grasp of the basic functions on a device. Many of the class participants just wanted to know basics like mobile top-ups.

“Meteor’s Drogheda team got involved by giving classes during their lunch breaks. Mobile technology is second nature to younger consumers. But the older generations haven’t grown up with this technology so we’re happy to help dispel the fear and give senior citizens an understanding of the basics such as deleting a full message box or adding contacts into the mobile phone.”

Kelly says she believes there is demand for such courses throughout the country and they would be beneficial to the over-55 age group not only from a learning perspective but also from a social perspective.

McCrumlish agrees. “The class participants love the social aspect. People in that age group aren’t in a rush to go anywhere and at the courses they get to meet people they haven’t seen in years. It’s a real social thing for them.”

She adds the classes tend to run over a week but could be elongated to three weeks in order to get the silver surfers fully conversant with the technology.

One criticism she has is that mobile manufacturers are making mobile phones that appeal to tech-savvy young people and don’t think of the elderly at all. “Many mobile phones in the market are too small with tiny keys. They need to be made bigger with larger buttons for people with arthritic fingers or fading eyesight to cope with them.”

By John Kennedy