an older woman holds a cell phone
Smartphones are great for connecting with grandkids — if you can use them. (Photo/brandpoint.com)

They don’t call, they don’t write — and I don’t text

My grandkids don’t call, they only text. I don’t have a smartphone, but should I get one in order to communicate with them? The digital age is foreign to me. I am holding out but I want to feel part of my grandchildren’s lives. Suggestions? — R.L., Lafayette

The explosion of technology has brought with it a new culture and an entirely new way to communicate and build relationships, even within families. For someone who hasn’t yet jumped into it, all this technology can certainly seem like a confusing new world. But it can also be a great tool for connecting with your family members.

With families now being spread across the country, today’s grandparents often feel removed from their children and grandchildren’s lives. Adapting to the new digital lifestyle may be the connection needed for grandparents to be able to overcome the distance and isolation. And older adults are increasingly turning to technology for connection of all sorts. According to the Pew Research Center, internet use among those 65 and older grew 150 percent between 2009 and 2011, the largest growth in a demographic group. Studies show that the internet has become an important portal for reducing isolation, loneliness and other depressive symptoms.

While learning something new can be anxiety-producing, the reality is that your grandchildren are growing up with these means of communication. In fact, today’s teens and tweens often express their feelings and thoughts more easily via text and social media. If you have a smartphone, you may hear from them more frequently and this will help you understand and keep up with your grandchild’s life. Some of the digital platforms can create more closeness and family connection. For example, photos of family gatherings or even everyday happenings can be shared on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. A smartphone or similar device can be a great tool for being able to participate in this type of family interchange.

To start learning about all this tech, consider attending classes at the library or a senior center. You should be able to find some classes specifically designed for older adults. For example, SF Connected provides free computer training and support for seniors AARP also offers workshops, videos and online safety tips through their Technology, Education and Knowledge Academy. These classes will be fun and you will meet others who are motivated to learn. And of course, don’t forget about the grandchildren. They can be great teachers to help you understand the array of technological gadgets.

Gaining confidence using technology will lead you to other options and connections. For example, there are many smartphone apps that can help you with exercise, physical fitness and health monitoring. And you will probably also find your favorite newspapers and magazines in digital format. This may have a secondary benefit of cutting down on the papers and clutter in your home. Technology can even keep the brain active with game sites like Lumosity.

Once you start gaining some familiarity with the tech options out there, you may find that a smartphone screen may be too small for you. Tablet computers are easier to use and have a bigger screen. There’s even one designed for just seniors called grandPad. This special tablet has its own private, curated system. You can just tap a family member’s photo to make a video call or press a pre-set button to send a voicemail message. You can also play your favorite games such as blackjack on the grandPad. Your children or grandchildren can be involved in setting up the tablet to meet your needs. It’s a fun, simple and innovative platform for the older generation to stay connected with the latest technological advancements without feeling frustrated or anxious.

Just as technology can help you connect with your grandchildren and children, it can also help you find old friends and make new ones. On Facebook you’ll likely be able to reconnect with old school friends, neighbors and relatives. It’s often pretty amazing to re-establish relationships with people after many years. There are also plenty of opportunities to connect with local folks. Your neighborhood might have a network that posts events, yard sales or resources.

You’ll find endless possibilities and information once you’re online. The key is to take things slowly and comfortably and to allow yourself time to learn, practice and increase your newfound skills. Taking small steps will give you the confidence and pride that even in your later years, you’re able to master a whole new world.

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Rita Clancy

Rita Clancy, LCSW, is the director of adult services at Jewish Family & Community Services of the East Bay. Have questions about your aging parents? Email rclancy@jfcs-eastbay.org or call (510) 558-7800, ext. 257.