Grandparents learn to surf and they like it

By ANN GIBBON, Wednesday, June 15, 2005 Updated at 9:34 PM EDT
From Thursday’s Globe and Mail

Grandma’s on the Net again, the kitchen’s not her home. She used to make us cherry pies, and call us on the phone. We miss her homemade biscuits, and I’ll make this little bet, If you want to contact Grandma, you’ll have to surf the Net. From an Internet chain letter

My 78-year-old father, a retired stockbroker and still avid investor, used to track his stocks by hand in dog-eared notebooks. My 69-year-old mother thought chips were reserved for tuna casseroles. In the lives of this tech-averse couple, a computer had no place.

Two years ago, they caved. Now, dad is at the computer at 6.30 a.m. in Vancouver, poised for the Toronto Stock Exchange’s opening, to track his on-line portfolio. When mom bakes biscuits, she downloads the recipe from a website.

They’re not alone in their tech transformation. An Ipsos-Reid study shows older Canadians are closing the technological generation gap. The study indicated that in the second quarter of 2004, 60 per cent of Canadians 55 years and older used the Internet, up 12 percentage points from that period three years ago. Use by younger Canadians, aged 18 to 54, rose by just four points to 86 per cent.

And, the research suggests, there’s a reason grandma in that chain letter isn’t baking pies any more. In 2004, older Canadians spent almost 10 hours a week on-line a 41-per-cent jump over the previous year. Younger Canadians’ level of use may be higher, at 12½ hours a week, but it hasn’t changed in three years.

For many older Canadians, the Internet is great for learning about things such as health and retirement issues, says Sandra Kerr, program director for the Seniors Education Program at Ryerson University’s continuing education school in Toronto. Internet interest among seniors has become so strong that Ryerson runs a website,, to offer courses to those eager to get on-line.

And while seniors often have been stereotyped as technophobes, these days many are anything but. Anita Mountjoy, a 72-year-old retired nurse who lives in Montreal, is a prime example, using her wireless portable computer to e-mail friends from Venezuela to Oman. Craig Dobbin, founder and executive chairman of CHC Helicopters Corp., is as techno-savvy as they come “the 69-year-old’s tech toys and tools include several PCs, a wireless laptop and a BlackBerry 7100 phone/e-mail device (he conducted this interview on it).

And as more seniors use computers and the Internet, they’re becoming more vocal about their shortcomings. Ms. Kerr, for example, says the industry needs to pay more attention to seniors’ particular needs, such as making on-screen text easier on the eyes. Mr. Dobbin wants enhancements, such as better voice-recognition systems. If you could dictate e-mail, wow, wouldn’t that be an advance.

Pria Nippak, who manages the Ryerson website, adds that feedback to the university’s on-line courses for seniors indicates they want websites that are easier to navigate and read. She adds that, in her experience, seniors generally don’t like things such as flashy pictures or Flash technology (fancy website images that move).

Coloured text, particularly blue hues, can also be difficult for aging eyes to read. Web designers who fill seniors-oriented sites with bright colours and graphics are wasting their time, she says, and they may even be turning their intended audience off. Seniors would rather read black and white [content]. They’re newspaper-era people.

So, with a large wave of baby boomers reaching retirement age, is the tech industry responding to feedback from seniors?

John Kelly, product marketing manager for consumer desktops at Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Co., admits that, for now at least, the tech giant doesn’t market gear specifically to seniors, despite the huge demographic the baby boom generation represents. Rather, he says, it tries to make all its products easy to use, adhering to what he calls a plug and play philosophy. The company also offers computer packages with some basic features that might appeal to seniors, bigger monitors for those with vision problems, and notebooks with larger keys for those with reduced dexterity.

Mr. Kelly added that HP is aware of the 55-plus market’s potential spending power, estimated by some at more than $1-trillion (U.S.), and the fact that people in this group often have needs that differ from those of younger consumers. We certainly have looked at and are tracking the seniors market, he said, without giving specifics.

Other vendors aren’t willing to discuss their product and marketing strategies for seniors at all. Repeated attempts to obtain comment from tech hardware giant Dell Computer Corp., for example, were unsuccessful.

Ms. Nippak believes the tech industry would do more to meet seniors’ needs if there was clearly more money to be made. Many are living off pensions. That’s why they’re using our services here, she says.

Seniors are the ideal market for the technology industry, Ryerson’s Ms. Kerr adds. “As people and are less able to get around … they can [use technology to] keep up with their peers, and learn.”

Both may be proved right as the baby boom generation heads into retirement. An eMarketer Inc. report says that today in the United States alone there are 33.2 million Internet users between the ages of 50 and 64, triple the number of on-line users over the age of 65. The Pew Internet and American Life Project study adds that as this silver tsunami of Internet users in their 50s tends to have a bigger disposable income than non-techie senior citizens. And if the trends highlighted by the Ipsos-Reid poll continue, seniors could soon be logging more time on computers and the Internet than their younger counterparts.

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