Never Too Old?
Retirees on the role of technology in their lives
By Roger M. Williams
Retired people would seem to be both a natural and an unnatural market for technology. With lots of time to do what they choose, they can spend hours learning about the latest gadget and hours more figuring out how to actually use it. On the other hand, older folks—at least in theory—resist change and innovation. For example, if a landline is sufficient for your communication needs, why get a cell phone?
At least among NEA retirees, technology users seem to far outnumber the non-users—those who completely shun technology are few and scattered. Compared with 20- and 30-somethings, the group of NEA retirees I interviewed for this article contained only a handful of passionate techies—the kind who text until their thumbs bleed—but there are plenty of people who use the technology they have relentlessly and yearn to buy more. Many do so even while lamenting the cost and the amount of time consumed. Barbara Cunningham, a retired teacher and president of NEA-Retired Iowa, says that although the monthly charges for her various phones, including an iPhone, “are always more than I expect,” she finds her iPhone a necessity.
Many retirees still teach part-time, which exposes them to the latest gadgetry and instills confidence that they can use it. Others latch on to email, Facebook, and Twitter as necessary means for communicating with their fellow activists in the NEA’s national and state organizations; indeed, social media have become virtual weapons in the union’s efforts to combat legislative assaults on the interests of public school educators.
To get a sense of what’s up technologically among NEA retirees, This Active Life sampled the practices and opinions of a half-dozen active members.
“I believe in using as much technology as I can afford,” asserts Michael McCoy, adding, “and as much as it is useful to me. I’m not going to buy everything that comes out.” Although he uses a normal spectrum of tech tools—laptop, cell phone, Facebook, and Twitter—he has resisted getting an iPhone: “The additional cost wouldn’t be bad, but the monthly charge would be.” For sticking to that position, he pays another kind of price. People send him a lot of photos, with texts, that his ordinary cell phone cannot handle. “They just assume I have a smart phone,” he says. To watch the movies he wants, McCoy keeps subscribing to costly premium channels, “even though I know the cable companies are overcharging for them.”
McCoy confirmed his techie status when his desktop and laptop computers both expired—on the same day. Deciding that the era of the desktop was fast fading, he replaced only the laptop. For similar reasons, he has given up long-distance service on his landline phone. And although he finds Twitter “not useful,” he loves Facebook, particularly for its ability to connect to the “issue groups” to which he and fellow NEA retirees belong. “Facebook has been a tremendous help to us in dealing with education issues here in Louisiana.”
Gary Wilkerson had a scant need for modern technology during his career as a full-time teacher. But now, in semi-retirement, he has been a special reading instructor, taught reading methods and language arts, done some substitute teaching, and supervised teaching interns. That experience set him on the tech trail, if not quite propelled him down it, and has instilled a fascination with all sorts of items and apps, even if he’s not ready to acquire them. “I’m totally fascinated with apps,” Wilkerson says. And rather than use an inferior cell-phone camera, he “constantly” takes digital-camera photos and uploads them to his computer. He even uses an ergonomic keyboard.
But he sounds a cautionary note:
“I tell my students, ‘You have to have balance when you use technology.’ ” Wilkerson himself achieves a balance by not tweeting, avoiding expensive cable movie channels, and using his cell phone “basically only for emergencies.” Also by never texting in dangerous situations: “It drives me crazy to see people texting while they’re driving”—a prime example, he feels, is a lack of balance.” The expense of new equipment does concern him, but if it looks too high at the outset, “I’m willing to wait until the price comes down. I’m not one of these people who has to have the newest thing right away.”
When Carole White uses a device that offers games and other alluring apps, she sidesteps the allure. (With an exception: Sportacular, an app that keeps her up-to-date on her beloved college teams.) “I’m not looking for entertainment,” she explains. “I’m looking for empowerment.” That sums up White’s approach to technology in general: “It’s an empowering tool, one that’s changing the way we live. As an English teacher”—formerly in public schools, now at a local college—“I can tell you that it’s certainly changing language.”
In her home office, White divides her computer activity between a desktop (for lesson preparation and other schoolwork) and a laptop (for most other functions). She retains a landline but nowadays uses it mainly for faxing; her iPhone handles the calls. She dismisses cost as a consideration in acquiring technology. “It is expensive, but well worth the cost,” she says emphatically. “It makes my life run more smoothly and efficiently. For me, it has become like another arm.” She has little patience with anti-tech holdouts: “The challenge for them is to remain relevant in our culture. You’re either going to go with technology or be left behind.”
Paradise Valley, Arizona
Julie Horwin does it all. She emails and texts; she blogs and sends newsletters; she tweets and spends who knows how much time on Facebook; and she owns and uses a desktop and two laptops. A year ago, she gave up her landline and took to full-time use of her iPhone; she has an up-to-date iPad2; she surfs the web and Skypes; she taps into SkyGrid (“your very own custom news!”); contributes to a variety of web publications; she banks, pays bills, and shops online; she subscribes to premium cable channels; and she streams video to a computer. For her, “connectivity” is priceless.
The only gadgets Horwin does not regularly engage with are video games (she wishes she had time to do so) and e-readers like the Kindle. (“I have one but don’t use it”—yet). Is Facebook a waste of time? Not to Horwin, who likes “the instant connection to people. If you want to be effective in today’s world, you need that. You need the ease of clicking and blogging to develop relationships and to tell our individual stories.” Horwin uses Twitter “for quick news” and to send photos. But as a retiree, she finds it frustrating: “You rarely see any other retired persons on it.”
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Kathy DuPuis observes sensible limits in her pursuit of technology. Asked if she has a phone with mapping and Google capabilities, she replies, “If I did all that, I’d never get my clothes washed!” It’s not just the time involved that bothers her: “At concerts, I see all these people playing with their phones, while the concert is in progress. Turn off the phone or stay home is what I say.”
DuPuis’ even-handed assessment of technology in general: “It’s something everybody should be acquainted with.” She herself had essentially no acquaintance until only four years ago. “I was afraid of computers—and amazed watching people use them.” Although she now spends some five hours a day in front of a computer, she’s still not wholly comfortable with the technology that surrounds her. “Everybody says, ‘These things are easy.’ But I don’t understand apps. And sometimes I push the buttons on my cell phone a half-dozen times before getting the one I want”; with some computer maneuvers, “I learned by clicking here and clicking there.” But DuPuis now is undaunted. And she has learned more than enough to be—via Facebook, email, and online articles—a tireless advocate of teachers’ interests in Louisiana politics.
A feisty and proud 82 year old, Mary Bishop wants no part of what we call modern consumer technology. “I couldn’t care less about it,” she says, “or about what people think about me for not wanting it.” Bishop has never owned or used a computer and has absolutely no plans for either; if something needs doing online, her husband does it. For everything else, she declares, “I have a telephone, and everybody who deals with me knows to call me on it.” Isn’t email attractive? Heavens, no: “Write me a letter.”
Bishop does have a cell phone. But hold on: “Know where I keep it? In my purse, on ‘off.’ I don’t go anyplace I don’t know the directions to—except when my husband and I go to Washington, D.C., that is. We use it there to keep in touch if we’re separated and we need to talk.” There’s also a slight concession when driving: the car is equipped with OnStar, a navigation and safety-alert device. Other than that, Bishop will take her most comfortable chair and a good book over any tech gadget in sight. “I’m no dummy,” she says sharply. “I taught school for 30 years, and I can learn anything. In this case, I just don’t want to.”