Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Tackling the Technology: Never Too Old!

Many older people are in a quandary: on the one hand, it seems very difficult to learn how to use a computer – on the other hand, life is getting harder all the time for those who can't use the confounded machine.

Until recently one could say :"Oh, I don't need the ghastly thing, let the children play with it", but sadly, the world is becoming so dependent on the internet that it is now sink or swim time.

It is very frustrating that everything is online these days – whether you want to pay an account, do business with your bank, reserve a library book, buy a plane ticket or just find out when the next train is, it is practically impossible to get a real live person to talk to and very often you get charged extra for it, too! You are constantly confronted with strings of double-yous and told to go to gobbledygook@somewhere.com and click on things.

Your back is to the wall. In self-defence, you have to get a computer. Then you have to learn what to do with the blasted thing.

First up, you need to buy a computer that is suited to your needs. You don't need a machine that will enable you to design a space station or balance a medium-sized country's budget. Talk to a reputable dealer who will not try to sell you expensive high-powered stuff that you don't need and will never use.

To start with, just buy your computer and a printer. Wait until you are au fait with using them before you begin to add scanners and webcams and other expensive toys.

If you have not used a computer before, you will find that your first frustration will be the physical task of learning to use the mouse and the keyboard. Perhaps you already know how to type, but if you have no keyboard skills, don't despair: your hunt-and-peck method will improve with practice until you are using more than two fingers and know where all the keys are.

It is important to choose a comfortable keyboard when you buy your computer. If the keys are small and close together, it is not easy to manoeuvre unaccustomed fingers around them. It looks so easy when the kids do it, but remember, they have small fingers and no arthritis! Plus they started practising while they were still breastfeeding.

Mastering the mouse can also be very frustrating for a first-time user. Right click, left click, single click, double click … you have to learn how fast to click, how long to hold the click down, how soon to let go when you drag and drop … go and make a cup of tea, yell at the budgie, kick the cat and try again. Remember when you learnt to ride a bike? Wobble-wobble and then suddenly, one day you could do it. Persevere!

The next thing you have to do is get someone to teach you how to use the e-mail and the internet and the word processor. Not the kids.

"Do this!" they say. Their fingers fly over the keyboard. When you ask to be shown again, they sigh and roll their eyes. You feel old and stupid. They feel clever and important. They forget who taught them to wipe their butt and tie their shoes. You didn’t roll your eyes when their little fingers struggled to get a button through a buttonhole!

So, don’t ask the kids. You need a teacher who will not make you feel embarrassed to ask the same thing several times over. Nobody can remember everything, especially when it is new information totally unrelated to any previous experience. You will need to ask again and again; it does not mean you are stupid. Your brain needs to develop new neural pathways. (I just made that up - don't know if it means anything, but it sounds good!)

Like any new skill, it takes time to learn to use your computer. Not only do your hands have to learn the physical skills, but you have to get a picture in your mind of how it all fits together – where does your e-mail go? Where does the stuff that you download come from? Why can you only have one thing on the clipboard? What is the clipboard, anyway?

If you wanted to learn how to drive the V-Line train to Sydney, you would have some point of reference because you can drive a car – if you have to learn how to cook a gourmet meal, at least you have used a sharp knife before and you have basic knowledge of how the stove works. But when you come cold to learning computer skills, you have no previous experience or similar skills to draw upon. You have to start from scratch. It is easy to become discouraged and give up, because nobody likes to feel incompetent. You need encouragement!

If you have a friend who is handy with a computer, ask him or her to give you a couple of lessons. They will be happy to help you. If you don't know anyone like that, go to your local library. They all run e-mail and internet classes for beginners. They know all the pitfalls that you will face: many beginners have passed through their hands!

While you are at the library, borrow a "Dummies" book. With their distinctive yellow covers, they are the most useful thing to come out of the publishing racket since Mrs Beeton told us how to stuff a rabbit. "Internet for Dummies" and "E-mail for Dummies" is what you want. When you return them, you will probably buy copies of your own so you can refer to them any time you like. They explain clearly and simply so even a six-year-old can understand. Or in this case, a sixty-year-old: the six-year-olds have no problems!

You may also like to try the BBC's excellent online basic computer training site, "The Absolute Beginner's Guide". It gives you simple instructions, with diagrams, and you can practise each step as many times as you like before going on to the next one. The computer never gets bored or impatient and it has no eyes to roll! To try it, go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/webwise/abbeg/abbeg.shtml

The key factor is to keep practising – practice makes a prefect, as my little sister used to say. With assiduous practice, you will be a prefect in no time, even head prefect! Don't be scared of your computer – you will not break it by pressing the wrong key, unless you use a sledgehammer to do so. Fossick around in all the drop-down menus, try clicking on different options – experiment!

Your efforts will be richly rewarded: a new window on the world will open for you. When I was learning to read, my mother told me: "If you can read, you will never be lonely – if you have a book, you have a friend." Could she have seen into the future, she might have added: "… and if you have a computer, you have lots of friends!"

Whatever your interests, from applique to zoology, there are millions out there who share them and want to discuss them with you. (There are also millions out there who want to sell you dodgy stuff and rip you off, but that is another story for another day.)

You will meet lovely people. An Alaskan lady who answered my query on a cookery site ("how much butter is "a stick" in an American recipe?") became a good friend and we have been corresponding by e-mail for over ten years.

Go to www.writeseniors.com to find a penpal of your own age and similar interests.

You will never have to use a recipe book or a dictionary again – Google will tell you how to make haggis and chocolate brownies; it will tell you what any word means and how to pronounce it to boot.

Do you fondly remember Basil Fawlty not mentioning The War, Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling, Sam playing it again in Casablanca and that wonderful credit title sequence in "A Walk on the Wild Side"? It's all on YouTube, to watch any time you like. Free of charge!

If you are of a more morbid turn of mind, you can watch Kennedy getting shot (either one) or Princess Di getting buried. If you are feeling exceptionally morbid, you can also watch her getting married, all unconscious of her doom!

You can play bridge or chess or Scrabble with an opponent in Uzbekistan or Gundagai; you can publish your poetry and your holiday snaps; you can browse through the collections of all the great art museums; you can buy your groceries or a new pair of shoes and sell that horrible vase you got for Christmas, all without leaving your chair. Give it a go!

… and every time you feel a bit intimidated by your computer, just remember this: it has the same IQ as your toaster and no opposable thumbs. They are machines, who can only do as they are told. You are the powerful being who can unplug them!

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