For many senior citizens, the computer is becoming an ideal way to keep in touch with family and bond with the younger generation

Whenever R. Subramanyam and his wife, Lakshmi, want to see what their grandchildren did in class, they go on Skype. With their three daughters living in the U.S., the Bangalore couple uses email, video chat and social networks to watch their five grandchildren, aged between 2 and 6, grow up. “I feel happy to see them,” Ms. Lakshmi says.

For many seniors like her, the computer is becoming an ideal way to keep in touch with family and bond with the younger generation, while also building a network with their peers.

A 2010 research project by the Pew Research Centre, U.S., indicated that more senior citizens in the U.S. were logging on to social media sites. Social network usage for Internet users of 74 and older quadrupled between 2008 and 2010, from 4 per cent to 16 per cent, making this age group the fastest growing social media users.

Figures in the Indian context were not immediately available — surveys from 2012 indicate around 7 per cent of the over 50 million people on Facebook in India are aged above 55. Looking through personal friend feeds, where a grandaunt just “liked” the latest holiday photos, could point to a greater comfort level with the Internet among seniors.

Says Kumar G. Rao, a retired computer professional who divides his time between India and the U.S.: “Computer literacy can enhance productivity [of elders], quality of life, relationships and self-worth.” He has started TekSavvy Worldwide, which aims at providing online learning resources and on-the-ground training to bridge the “digital divide that has formed between senior citizens and their computer savvy children and grandchildren”.

Mr. Rao’s “Chikkappayya”, Vasudev Rao, who will turn 97 in December, says he spends an hour-and-a-half on alternate days on Facebook. A retired doctor who lives with his wife, he says his computer is for “entertainment”. He is “too forgetful” for email now, but “enjoys looking at photos” of his large family and friends. However, for many senior citizens, learning to use computer is a necessity to find jobs and ensure financial stability. This is especially true for lower-middle income groups.

“One of the main problems that elders face is economic, as they have not planned [for their retired life]. They have medical expenses, cost of living is increasing, children have moved away. This burdens them,” says Radha S. Murthy, managing trustee of Nightingales Medical Trust.

Senior citizens, especially those in the 60 to 70 age group, are fit to work and can be an asset to companies, she says. However, they lack knowledge about the present system of working. “They require literacy in computers and soft skills,” she adds. The Nightingales Jobs 60+ programme (Ph: 65608888) shortlists and trains candidates for employment. The computer training includes sessions on how to use the Internet, MS Office, and accounting software such as Tally, to prepare senior citizens for jobs in accounting, administration and supervision.

“Computers are useful to help them get more information, gain confidence and feel like they can be competitive,” Dr. Radha says. Getting jobs “empowers” them; they are no longer “receivers”, and their status improves in society, she adds. However, computers, software and applications, with their frequent updates and sensitive hardware, can be overwhelming. “Our instructor repeats instructions up to eight times,” says A. Chandran, coordinator, computer literacy course for senior citizens at the RVIM Institute of Management, Jayanagar, (Ph: 9449828204, rvim.in) stressing the importance of patience.

Their programme, a CSR initiative of the RVIM Centre for Social Responsibility, is in its 17th batch, having trained 500 people over five years; the oldest student was 94. The next batch will start in the last week of October. For an hour a day, for three months, students are tutored to upload photos, use Skype, design presentations, use email, search — health-related questions are the most popular —, online banking and social networks.

Online ticket booking and e-payment of bills is made easier, saving them the trouble of going out for an uncomfortable errand. They are also cautioned about virus, online scams and password protection, Mr. Chandran adds.

At the Nightingales computer training centre too — now training its sixth batch of 40 each —, students are taught to identify malicious sites and advised to limit online banking, trust sources said.