7 Ways to Help the Elderly Learn How to Use a Mac, iPhone, or iPad

| Computing with Bifocals

Since it is holiday time, may I make a few suggestions to help if you plan to give a Mac or iOS device to a first time user who is elderly?  Never mind the kids, they seem to be born now days asking for an iPad which they somehow seem to already know how to use.

An Elder Using an iPad

Example, the three year old who accompanied her mother to work and used her iPad to place a Facetime call to her grandmother because she was bored. Or the five year old who taught his father how to work his iPad. Or the two year old who knows how to switch the TV settings to Apple TV and then select a program to watch.

But I digress.  Those of us who are older will never catch up with them. We have all this stuff taking up room in our heads, like black and white TV, and phone party lines, and manual typewriters, and even cloth diapers. 

Here are my suggestions for helping elderly users learn how to use their Macs, iPhones, and iPads, in no specific order.

Figure Out How They Learn Best.  Are they auditory or visual learners. Just ask them. They will know.  Keep that in mind when offering help. And for heavens sake, let them do the tasks themselves.

Understand They They Will Probably Fear The Thing.  I don’t care of they have raised six kids who all turned out perfectly or if they ran a business. Technology is not something that is familiar to many elderly people and their biggest fear is that they will break "this expensive piece of equipment."  I always tell older students that the only way they can truly break it is to throw it out the window or hit it with a hammer. Everything else can be fixed.

Don’t Try To Teach Too Much At One Time.  You know, give me a break. You didn’t learn it all once, why should some one else?

Start With The Fun Stuff.  Games and e-mail. When my father was in his 80’s I taught him how to enjoy a Mac. We started with games. By games, I mean Solitaire and other kinds of apps that mirror what my parents grew up with. It has worked every time I have tried. By the time the student is comfortable with a game they enjoy, they have learned how to turn on the device, open the game, move the mouse (or a finger), and play the game without worrying about all they have to learn.

Email.  Most elderly users will love email once they can use it. My dad was suddenly able to contact all his children and grandchildren. People of my parents generation still considered long distance calling to be expensive and to be used only in emergencies long after it became a routine part of phone plans.  Sometimes it is hard to erase those preconceived ideas.

Create an email address that is easy to remember and set it up for them. They don’t need to know how to set one up the first day out of the box. Make it an easy to remember and secure address such as j.doe @icloud.com. iCloud is going to keep them safe and it is reliable. Write down email addresses and passwords. Explain about spam. I thought my dad was going to have a heart attack when he got his first porno email.

Program in email addresses for everyone they want to contact. You want them to use it, not necessarily understand how it works at the beginning. Walk them through the process of sending and receiving an email. Please - GIVE THEM WRITTEN DIRECTIONS to use until they are comfortable.

Share Experiences. Casually share “dumb things” you did when you were learning. 

Show Them How To Get Answers For Themselves.  Most elderly people I have worked with are hesitant to contact their kids for help.  The general comment is that they don’t want to bother their family with questions. They might not have any idea how much information is available at their fingertips, something the rest of us take for granted. Show them how they can enter a question in the URL field and get an answer for themselves. For instance: “How do I add a new email address.” 

And perhaps most important, if you don’t have the patience to teach, find someone who can. Remember learning to drive a car and having one or the other of your parents criticize your every move? Not everyone can teach—it’s not a sin.

I hope these tips make the new device more fun for everyone concerned.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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My significant other, though not elderly (she’s only 60), gets very frustrated with any sort of computer interface.  Mac, PC, Android, IOS, doesn’t seem to matter much.  Your point about fear is spot on. She is quite afraid of breaking whatever it is she’s using, so when she finds herself somewhere she didn’t want to be, she freezes and doesn’t know how to back out of it.  So I think your article has some useful tips for helping her get more comfortable with her computer and her phone.  The point about written instructions is key, as she says that they help her a lot, as long as she writes them down.  Doesn’t work as well if I do it.
And starting with something fun - hadn’t thought of that.
Good advice. Thanks for writing this.

Ted Landau

My uncomfortableness with articles like this is that they tend to assume the “elderly” are one uniform group. How would it sound if the article was titled “How to help Latinos to use a Mac…”? It would sound weird…because while some Latinos may need help, others clearly do not. And it might also appear patronizing or even prejudiced toward the elderly. Not good.

While many elderly do need help, this article perpetuates the stereotypes that ALL elderly need help and that the type of help they need is distinctly different from what younger computer-phobes (of which there are also many) need.

Also, elderly is not defined here. Are you talking about people 60 and over?70 and over? 80 and over? Or what? That too makes a big difference.

I know I’m probably over-reacting here but…as an elderly person…I guess I’m a bit sensitive.


Why?  Clearly they’ve got by for decades without this trinket, why do they need to learn how to use it?  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy using tablets for watching netflix while out on the town, it’s much easier to use than a laptop on a plane, and I really like having books at my fingertips.

But none of these are without analogue versions.  They don’t need these toys in their lives. Let’s worry about what they do need. And when they ask me about my $100 tablet I won’t be worried about handing it to them to watch netflix or whatever. Hopefully they will see my ease of trust and see they don’t need to fear breaking it cause it would be no bigger deal than breaking a wine glass.

William Wales

Thanks for your suggestions. We should be more patient to elderly people around us. I usually help my grandpa to free up their iPad with iMyfone Umate, because they like watching TV, and they don’t know how to clear up storage.

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