Nathan Hill’s extraordinary new novel Wellness is many things: a satire of the self-care movement and dubious behavioral sciences research; a send-up of gentrification and helicopter parenting; and a trenchant exploration of how childhood trauma can repeat itself in adult relationships, specifically in the beleaguered marriage of Jack and Elizabeth Baker, the book’s central characters.
But one of my favorite parts details how Jack’s elderly father, Lawrence, first struggles with social media (his misunderstanding of the basics of Facebook and email is hilarious) but then gets slowly sucked into the world of escalating algorithms and internet conspiracy theories, fevered right-wing lies he insists on relentlessly sharing online with his lefty artist son, adding a whole new layer of hurt.
The novel nails it when it comes to the struggle of senior citizens and their access to and facility with digital literacy, a problem that has wider implications than simply strained family relationships, although that element is certainly painful enough.
Studies show older Americans are especially vulnerable to the proliferation of fake news online.
One study found that, during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, people 65 and older were twice as likely to be exposed to fake news on Twitter (now X) and seven times more likely to share fake news on Facebook than 18- to 29-year-olds — a finding experts ascribed largely to the former’s lack of digital information literacy.
That lack likely arises from multiple causes, they theorize, including the fact that many American seniors, unlike younger people, didn’t grow up using computers, and the technology itself — with its smaller text and confusing, tech-heavy jargon — is not senior-friendly.
A lack of facility online also opens up older Americans to scammers and other bad actors in cyberspace. According to the FBI, U.S. senior citizens lost nearly $1 billion in online scams in 2020.
Seniors’ fear of technology and nervousness about how to use it forecloses them from all the good tech has to offer — social connectivity, the simplicity of paying bills online and myriad other ways computers and mobile devices have made human life easier.
There aren’t a lot of studies proving that seniors’ ability to discriminate fact from fiction online can be improved via special training, but at least one suggests it can. Programs exist that specifically try to help them do this.
How healthily seniors interact with cyber technology matters, because — despite their nervousness around social media — a whopping two-thirds of adults 65 and older now use it.
Studies show socioeconomic factors such as income and education level play a big role in determining how savvy and adept a senior might be with technology, with low-income seniors being left behind, part of the so-called “digital divide.”
The lack of digital literacy is a problem that local advocates for the elderly are addressing head on.
“Think of it as three legs of a stool,” said Darryl Greer, Southeastern Regional program manager with Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP that offers a slew of local tech programs to seniors.
“First, [older Americans] have to have access to devices that are available and priced right, and they have to be hardwired to the internet,” Greer said. “Then you have to have the training piece and a special curriculum for seniors, because they learn differently. You can’t ask them to just scan the QR code.”
In early October, OATS was part of Digital Inclusion Week, an annual event that seeks to raise awareness and address the digital divide across various communities.
This time, the focus was on helping eligible, low-income seniors sign up for a federal benefit program called the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) that offers free or subsidized home broadband access. The program also offers discounts on laptops, desktop computers or tablets to eligible applicants.
Held as part of workshops at several of the city’s senior centers, the week-long program meant to underscore a serious dearth: A 2020 national study found that 22 million older adults were without home-based broadband internet, said Greer.
“The pandemic served to highlight this gap,” he said. “This meant many seniors couldn’t do things like access telemedicine or sign up online for vaccinations.”
OATS, which throughout the year collaborates with the city, UTSA, local nonprofits, churches and “anywhere older folks congregate” has a special focus on older people who live in communities of color, Greer said, where barriers to digital access are especially dire.
Through its Senior Planet program, it offers free classes and other training, done in both English and Spanish, both Zoom-based and in person, all conducted by specially trained leaders well-versed in using senior-friendly, everyday language to talk about technology.
The classes address hundreds of topics from online banking and wellness information to how to navigate TikTok and stay safe from internet scammers, Greer said.
There’s also a free hotline (210-504-4862) where seniors can talk to a trainer in person.
It’s all about connecting seniors to technology — and each other.
“We know that isolation is as bad as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,” said Greer. “And isolation can lead to disruptions in cognition and other issues for older Americans. The truth is, we’re all getting older, and it’s good to put these types of systems in place, so we can have better-connected communities.”
OATS published a report last year which found that older Americans who had access to technology and training tailored especially for them reported feeling more connected to family and friends. They experienced less depression than a control group of seniors who weren’t given those things.
It’s a tenet of ageism that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. However many seniors like to learn new things, if they think it is has a purpose and is presented correctly.
And presentation is key.
Full disclosure: I’m a member of the 60-and-older crowd, and when I took early, pandemic-related retirement from my newspaper reporter job in 2020, it was with a partial sigh of relief that I would never have to sit through another interminable training session on how to use a new computer system.
While I miss the hustle and flow of the newsroom, I don’t miss having to pretend being interested during excruciating workshops that sought to teach me newfangled, high-tech techniques to up my journalism game — lessons my younger colleagues appeared to soak up like sponges while I glowered and pondered what I’d have for lunch.
I don’t miss having to take a deep breath and psychically gird my loins every time something went wrong with my computer, when I’d have to seek out the IT guy, who I knew would blizzard me with questions in a tech lingo I didn’t understand, and who would then gaze at me with thinly veiled disdain (or perhaps it was pity) as I stood like a deer in the headlights, unable to answer.
If you’re trying to teach cyber-technology to your senior, following some easy rules can help convert their embarrassment or even shame around technology to eagerness. Slow down. Be patient.
Give seniors plenty of time and space to practice, and use everyday words instead of computer lingo. (One site, for instance, suggests “that instead of the term hyperlink, consider ‘link.’ Instead of URL, opt for ‘website address.’ Rather than DM/PM, use ‘private message.’”)
Create easy-to-understand cheat sheets that summarize the day’s lesson to address the memory issues that often attend aging.
And instead of blocking or unfollowing your aging parent who posts bizarre stuff on Facebook — as the Wellness protagonist Jack Baker did, to his everlasting regret — try some simple tips suggested by experts.
Educate your older relative on steps to check accuracy, like opening new tabs to check a website’s source. Ask them to compare whatever they’re sharing to what’s found on the same topic at mainstream and trusted news sites.
Alert them to the fact that websites with misspellings and odd-sounding domain names should raise red flags.
Ask them to ask themselves: Are there more points of view on this issue? Am I being manipulated? What do I really think about, say, the likelihood of aliens living among us in humanoid form, infiltrating the government?
With a little help, perhaps we can all get through the next presidential election with our family relationships intact — or at least a little less cyber-battered.