Bridging the Generations Digitally--One Great-Grandmother at a Time

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My family is blessed with lots of extended family. We are extremely blessed because not only do my kids have both sets of grandparents, they also have their beloved great-grandmother, too. My parents and my grandmother live nearby and we have dinner with them every Sunday. Until last year, my husband’s mother and grandmother lived with us. We just lost his grandmother last year. She was 101. Before she left us, she was thrilled to have been present at the college graduations of all of her grandchildren and many of her great-grand-children.

I have been increasingly dismayed with a gradual shift that is happening in our family. The chasm between the kids and the elders is widening. When we are all together on Sundays, we mothers-- Mom, my sister-in-law and I, are busily preparing dinner (well mostly. The men in my family are fabulous and frequent cooks, as well). More commonly, the men are watching television. And the kids are in the upstairs game room video-gaming and texting/IMing their friends. I have noticed that my aging grandmother isolates herself in her room—her private sanctum--with greater frequency.  I think she disappears partly because the activity is more than she is accustomed to, and partly because she has a daily routine from which she does not like to stray. I worry about this self-imposed isolation and how this may be related to her decline in functioning and mood.  And I worry about the generational disconnect, as my children and their great-grandmother are interacting less and less. 

However, thanks to Dr. Gary Small and his groundbreaking research, I have a plan. Dr. Small is the neuroscientist and Director of the UCLA Center on Aging who has the Internet all abuzz about his findings concerning digital information and changes in the brain. At the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting, he recently introduced research findings suggesting that when older people begin to search the internet, different parts of their brains are activated--revved up, if you will. In fact, compared to reading a book, when test subjects searched online, brain activity more than doubled.  

Evidently, the multitasking needed to perform searches online engages and strengthens areas of the brain, especially in the frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for higher functioning, such as decision-making, judgment and higher-order reasoning. What Dr. Small has been saying for some time is that the use of digital information is changing our brains into something new. We are, to hear him tell it, watching evolution take place. According to this study on seniors, the elderly are in a great position to benefit from these changes since they are fighting mental decline and diminished use. And the good news is, the changes brought about by surfing the Internet appear rather quickly.  Researchers found that it only takes two weeks on Google for “naïve” Internet users to see significant increases in brain function.

This chasm I am witnessing between my family’s generations could be remedied, I’m thinking, if we connect my grandmother to the digital world.  I am convinced that my grandmother, once a worldly, vivacious woman, would embrace this portal to the here-and-now with a little coaching, especially if it meant special attention from her great-grand children! As Angie Groh of connectforkids.org points out:

When senior citizens are comfortable using computers and realize the different things computers can do, they will be much more inclined to explore new technology.

Angie, as a high school sophomore, recognized the digital generation gap in her rural Iowa community and organized a group of 4-H Club kids to teach seniors about computers. Having found great success with her teen-to-senior mentoring effort, she encourages other kids to do the same in their areas.

So here’s my plan. I am going to enlist my children to help introduce their great-grandmother to the Internet Superhighway.  We’ll make a big deal about setting up a computer for her, in her private sanctum. We will address all of the physical barriers that I already know will concern her—like the pinched nerve in her neck. We’ll find a good chair, an ergonomic keyboard, whatever it takes.  And for a little slice of time during our weekly Sunday visit, one or more of the great-grands will help acquaint her with this new universe—email, Google, photo sharing. Then during the week, I will remind the kids to email her at least once. 

There are services popping up all over the Internet designed for my grandmother’s demographic.(See below)  She is 89-years-old, sharp as a tack and still fairly mobile. She is fortunate to live with my parents, who are very active and relatively Internet savvy.  So they can support her, too. We may join a service, like Famililink.com, which is a site that allows families to establish personal websites by which they can connect with and provide care support for older family members. On the simplified Famililink format, you can set-up your page with email and a calendar. You can also send and receive photos.

If my grandmother is resistant to my plan, I will point out to her that she will not be alone. Seniors are the fastest growing segment with regard to Internet use. There are currently an estimated 9 million seniors online!  Seniors are using the Internet to manage their health, stay connected to distant loved ones, and shop. If she still backs away, I will show her this video clip of Florence Henderson, which is an introduction to the FLOH Club, Florence Henderson’s own telephone-based technical support service for seniors. My grandmother loves Florence Henderson! But she will not likely need the FLOH Club, because she has eight great-grandchildren, four grandchildren (counting the in-laws) and my parents, who will all be her very own personal technical support system.

This is a win-win-win for everybody. She gets a brain boost and more face time with the kids. My kids get some important lessons about the priority of family elders. And they get to practice and develop the multi-generational, interpersonal skills so painfully lacking for most kids these days. I’m so positive that this family effort will produce memories that we will carry with us forever.  I can just hear it now: “Do you remember when we set-up Nanny’s Facebook page?!?!" (insert laughter and sighs of nostalgia)

If you have any Internet sources for seniors and/or grandparents, please share!!

...And I’ll let you know how it goes.

 Also see lauriewrites’ great round-up of tips for Grandparenting Long Distance, With Love and Technology 

Great Sites for Seniors--

AARP

SeniorJournal

SeniorWorld Online

About.com: Senior Health

AgeLine Database

Firstgov for Seniors

SeniorNet

Online Safety for Seniors

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