Computer pioneers and still going strong

Journalist Robert Letton is nearly 80 and has been using a computer since 1983.

Back then, before Windows and wifi, his portable computer offered one line of type on its tiny screen.  
Today he has the latest laptop with touch screen, cloud storage and high speed broadband, plus smartphone and an e-reader, and he regularly contributes to social media.

“I’m living the digital life,” he says, “And loving it!”

Robert is in the vanguard of tech savvy seniors who are entering old age with the world at their fingertips.
Today we can read books electronically – and write them too – communicate by email, Skype or through social media, manage our finances, follow our hobbies, watch movies, download and play music, borrow and buy books, access government sites such as Centrelink and Medicare, surf the net and use an app to enhance every aspect of life.

And most of us do, because although available statistics vary, it’s clear that well above half of Australians over 55 use home computers, tablets and/or smartphones, with the figure rising exponentially each year.
Of these, 78 per cent of Baby Boomers and 53 per cent of those over 65 regularly use the internet.
A survey of one south-east Queensland over 55s community shows a 75 per cent computer usage even if some only send and receive emails.

Age is not necessarily a factor here, because in the same survey group there is one 88-year-old who does many things on her computer, including Open University courses, while her 60-year-old neighbour refuses to have a computer in the house.  

Generally, though, the older you are the less likely it is you’ll be using a computer or allied device.
Those who learned their computer skills at work years ago have an obvious advantage over other seniors, but there are plenty of computer clubs and courses available such as Seniors on the Net, to help bridge the gap.  
Former schoolteacher Jo Bourke is another 70-something who has been using computers since the early 1980s and today produces a monthly newsletter for a medical association, using the sophisticated Creative Cloud graphic design program.

Jo, who also has an iPhone, uses social media and Skype to stay in touch with her scattered family – including face-to-face chats with her son and family in Canada, daughter and grandchildren in New York and family members around Australia, all online at once.  

Jo leads a very active life with many interests, most of which are made possible by being computer literate.  She is comfortably familiar with a range of word processing, publishing and photo management programs and enjoys researching on the internet. She can’t understand why everyone her age is not similarly computer-friendly.
“They miss out on so much”, she says, adding that computers and other devices are particularly important for older people because it enables them to stay in touch with friends and family, make new friends through social media, access banking, medical and other services – and also shop online without leaving home.

That’s especially important for those with health problems that may make them unable to drive.  

Like Robert Letton, she sees her beloved iMac not only as a device for entertainment and social interaction but as a way of continuing to stay in the workforce – as soon as she has more time, she plans to do more writing.
Colin Dunkerley calls himself The iPad Man and teaches over 50s how to get the best out of their iPads and iPhones through group and one-on-one lessons.  He has given talks on this subject in various parts of Australia aimed especially at those who didn’t grow up with computers.

His informative Facebook page offers senior-friendly videos and interactive programs.  Colin, 46, is enthused by the willingness of his clients to master the latest digital technologies; his oldest client is 94.  

“I love working with seniors and helping them use their iPads with confidence. It’s so rewarding when I can help them go from being afraid of their devices to not being able to put them down”, he says.

The most common fear among his clients, he adds, is thinking that they are going to “break” their devices or else delete something important by touching the wrong button. “I encourage them to have a go by telling them it’s a tool, not a chore”, says Colin. An introduction to his informative, senior-friendly approach can be found at

Besides lack of confidence, one deterrent to computer use among seniors is the attitude of many young salespeople to their older customers.  

“It’s offensive to have some tattooed youth with metal inserts and an attitude treating you as if you’re an idiot”, says Robert Letton, following a bad experience with one of the major computer retailers whose young salesman gave him misleading information and responded condescendingly to a query by saying he’d ‘trained as a salesman, not a computer technician!’

“They don’t listen to you and they don’t realise your computer requirements may differ greatly from that of their own age group,” he says. “These major retailers should employ a few seniors in their computer sections.”  
Colin Dunkerley agrees, observing wryly that he owes much of the success of his fast-expanding business to retailers who fail to recognise the importance of their cashed-up older customers.

He believes digital device retailing should be set up like a car sales showroom, where customers can “play” with products and get comfortable with them.

This is important because there are still older people who are reluctant to dip their toes into what they see as the overwhelming ocean of digital technology.  

People such as 71-year-old Pat S. (name withheld on request) who says she is too busy with her hobbies of painting, gardening and natural history to bother with learning to use an iPhone and would rather write letters to her grandchildren by hand than communicate by email or Skype.  

She sees computers as time-consuming rather than time-saving.  

Yet, like it or not, we live in a Brave New World of constant, rapid, social and technological change and being computer savvy is the best way for older people to keep up with it – or else find themselves disempowered and marginalised.  

As Colin Dunkerley says, these new technologies are there to complement your life, not complicate it.

Busting common computer myths

  Should I regularly turn my computer off to let it rest?
 Assuming you’re using a computer made in the last 10 years, shutting down your computer isn’t something you have to do regularly. Unless you’re going away for more than a few days, it’s perfectly fine to leave your computer on all the time. Putting it to sleep uses almost no power and it’ll be ready to go immediately. On a typical laptop, just closing the lid should make it sleep.

Running my laptop battery to zero is the best way to preserve its life.
This myth comes from the days of the nickel cadmium batteries and can actually harm the new lithium batteries used in laptops and tablets today. The more often you use your laptop, the more wear will occur on the battery regardless, but it is not necessary to let it run down to zero before recharging. Discharge the battery to 40-70 per cent before recharging and try not to let your battery go below 20 per cent.

Opening a spam email will automatically catch a virus.
Clicking on the subject line and opening a spam email will not contract a virus. It probably will if you click on a link included in the message, or open an attachment.

Do I have to defrag my hard drive?
When Windows 98 was released 17 years ago, users had to manually open the defragmentation tool and run it but modern versions of Windows automatically defragment your disks for you. Don’t bother.

Are hackers trying to hack my PC?
The internet has a lot of malware and social engineering schemes trying to get you to hand over your money but there’s no Hollywood-style “hacker” actively trying to compromise your PC. Attacks are automated. Your computer can get malware that attempts to log your keystrokes and steal your personal information but there’s no “hacker” probing for holes in your PC.

Antivirus will always protect my computer.
Antivirus software isn’t perfect but it is a helpful last line of defence. It often allows obnoxious adware and spyware to insert itself into your web browser, forcing you to use unsafe search engines and pushing additional advertisements on to you, but this isn’t the end of the world and can be cleaned off.

Email any questions to