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How to teach your grandma to use the computer

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My grandma, watching a video on my laptop.

My grandma, watching a video on my laptop.

More and more young people grow up with computers around them. Many of them cannot even imagine a time anymore without computers. But computers have not always been around. In fact, computers as we know and use them these days, with all the great possibilities of the internet, did not even exist 15 years ago.

Children that were born in the nineties or later very often have had computers around them since they were small. These kids are now reaching their twenties and for them it is completely normal that an important part of our lives these days is connected with computers.

But for their grand parents, who were maybe around sixty when they were born, and who are reaching their eighties now, this situation is most likely very different. They spent most of their lives without computers. And by the time computers started to become available for anyone at reasonable prices, they were still very complicated devices which took a lot of time to learn how to use them.

Now, in 2010, computers are available even at the bigger supermarket around the corner. They cost less than a washing machine and are more simple to use than a mobile phone. But for many people over seventy years old and also still for many people much younger than that, computers remain scary complicated devices which they prefer rather not to touch.

A simple postcard

In the past, until about 15 years ago, we would send a postcard when we were on holiday somewhere. We would take photos, 36 or 72 in total. Or maybe, if we had saved up enough money, we could take even 144 photos during one vacation.

Photos were not stored on digital cards of 1 or 2 or even 4GB. Photos were captured on small rolls of film, with a maximum of 24 or 36 photos on one film. After shooting the photos the film had to be brought to the shop where they were developed into images printed on special photo paper. The costs for this process varied, but in general it would be around 50 cent per photo.

These days we take our digital camera with us, a small device that is even capable of recording simple videos. In the local internet cafe, while still at our holiday location, we already upload our holiday impressions to the internet. We send an e-mail to all our friends that the material is online and by the time we get back home from our trip, many of our friends have already commented on all the material that we uploaded.

Except grandma and that one friend who keeps on refusing to use a computer for reasons that don't make sense to us anymore. They didn't get any message from us. So, once in a while, we still buy that postcard and send our greetings via good old postal mail. And sometimes, when we are back from our trip, we take our laptop with us to grandma, to show her the hundreds of photos.

Wouldn't it be great if we could just send her an e-mail? If we could just send her a message from the local internet cafe in that faraway town, just to say hello and let her know that we are having fun? And wouldn't it be great for her, if she could read the mail all by herself, alone at home, on her own computer? These days, it shouldn't be so complicated anymore... even grandma should be able to read her mails...

Is it really possible?

I don't know if it is really possible to get your grandma online. These days there are many older people who are using computers just like anyone else. But there are also still so many people from the older generation, who simply have never used a computer before and who just don't know where or why to start.

If you are considering to install a computer in your grandma's living room, then it will be good to be aware of a few things first before you buy the best and fastest machine for her. I've seen many cases, where the grandma had a beautiful computer in her living room, completely ready for anything. She just needed to switch it on and she would have it all right there. For months this computer would be in her living room. And all this time she would not touch it. Even when she was cleaning the room, she was not sure if she could also clean the big monitor, so she would not touch it.

If she doesn't want, it won't work

The first step to take when you want to get your grandma online, is not to buy her a computer. It will not work, even if you get her the most advance computer you can get. The first step that you need to take, is to make her curious. You have to get her interested. And this is not as easy as you might think.

Getting her interested for sure doesn't work when you show her the newest, state of the art, 3D games where you can walk around just like in real life. Getting her interested also doesn't work when you show her your e-mail inbox with your 12483 mails in it. And it doesn't work if you show her thousands of funny home made videos on youtube.

You need to show her something that she really needs. You need to show her something that would make her life easier. And that needs to be something that looks so simple, that she realizes that even she could do it and that it would actually help her in her daily life.

First of all you have to bring her into a situation where she forgets that she is sitting in front of the computer looking at the screen. An easy way is of course when you are looking together at your holiday photos. But if she has the patience for it, it will be more interesting to magically show her some information that she wasn't aware of that you could find that in the computer.

For example, it might be a nice idea to show her some cooking recipes with cakes from grandmother's time. Or you can show her information about all the different birds or plants in her garden. Or you can show her the special offers from the supermarket around the corner.

Just make sure that you prepare very well the things that you are going to show. It helps if you know exactly which websites you are going to show her. And if she looses interest, immediately stop and let her continue to make that hot chocolate for you. Never push, never force her to sit near the computer and never force her to use the mouse.

Your only chance is make her curious. Remember, you want to show her that using a computer is simple. So make sure that anything you show her LOOKS SIMPLE! Don't use google to search something, that is much too complicated to understand if someone has no experience with computers. Just click directly to one or two different websites and then stop immediately.

The key to teaching your grandma how to use the computer, is that you start very, very slowly. If you are rushing things, it will only take you even longer to make her feel safe on a computer.

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The magic trick to get her started

Getting your grandma to the point that she actually becomes interested might be a long way. I know young and old people who are determined that they don't need a computer and will never need a computer, even after trying to explain them the advantages for almost ten years...

But if your grandma is a brave woman, at some point, it might take a year or more, she will be ready to touch the computer herself. At this point, it makes no sense to explain her the menu and where to click to start a program. The first thing that she needs to learn now is how to handle the mouse.

Using the mouse is not as easy as it seems. The coordination between your brain, your hand on the flat table and that little pointer on the monitor is a very complicated process. When you first hold a mouse, it is not a logic movement to look at the screen, watching a little arrow go up and down and at the same time move your hand on a horizontal plane.

You can also notice this behaviour when young kids are using the mouse for the first time. This is something that we really have to learn and that takes time to learn. We all learned this at some point, only most of us cannot remember anymore how and when we learned it.

What is even more complicated to learn, is to double-click the mouse. You can observe this when small kids try to double-click. They are not yet able to keep the mouse still and just click twice with their finger. The mouse is always moving when they click. So they are clicking as quickly as they can as many times as they can, very hard trying to keep the mouse still and hoping that at some point the object that they are trying to double click will react. And if it won't work they will get angry and click even harder and faster until nothing works any more...

But back to grandma, or to that good friend who never used a computer before. For her, holding a mouse in her hand for the first time is a new experience. The brain needs time to understand the new movements and the coordination that is needed to operate this new object. And the best way to practise this, is to do something where you don't need to think about what you are doing, but where you can focus on learning how to use the mouse.

Something she already knows

The best way to learn how to move and click the mouse, is to play Solitaire, the simple card game. Solitaire is a game that your grandma most likely will know. Start the most simple version of Solitaire, the one with seven stacks of cards, which you eventually have to all get in the right order and right color in the four empty slots at the top.

This might be the game that she is playing already often at home. Start the game for her and then let her play. This game has everything that she needs to learn to get started. She will need to press down the (left) mouse button, hold it down and then move the mouse, to move a card from one place to another. Exactly on the right place, she will need to release the mouse button again.

Don't laugh now! This is a very complicated movement if your brain has never done this before. Let her reorder all the cards. It is not even easy to click the right card when they are in a row. And then to move it is even more complicated. But this is the same movement that you are doing when you are using a scrollbar or when you are copying a photo from one folder to another.

If your grandma can play cards fast with the mouse, she will be able to use the mouse also for other things on the screen. First let her just play cards. KEEP IT SIMPLE!

As soon as there is a card with A on one of the top slots, you can start to add the other cards to the pile. This can be done via dragging the card. But it can also be done by double-clicking the card. This is your chance to show her the possibility to double-click on a card. And this is her chance to practice double-clicking.

If all goes well, she will now start to focus on the game and not anymore on the computer. If all goes well, she will start thinking about how to solve the game and not anymore about how to use the mouse. If she wants to stop the play, tell her that she should really try to finish the game and to clear all the cards, because at the end there will be a nice surprise.

Five minutes is enough!

Of course you can help to solve the game, but she should be the one who is moving the cards with the mouse. BE PATIENT! It is very important that you give her the impression that she is very good! Everybody likes to get compliments. Don't start laughing! Of course you would be able to finish that same game in five minutes, whereas she needs 15 minutes to solve the same game. But as soon as she will feel uncomfortable, she will realize again that she is on a computer and will immediately loose the enthousiasm again.

Try to finish the game and after that congratulate her and celebrate together that you together solved the game. And then, immediately, switch off the computer again. One game is enough for the first time practising. Even if it seemed a simple thing to do, stop right away after playing one game. The brain now needs time to process the new movements that you practised.

The best is, if she would play this game again once a day for a couple of days. If she feels comfortable with playing, if she actually starts to like to play the game, if she doesn't realize anymore that she is holding the mouse in her hands and playing on a screen. Then you have reached the moment that you can start to think to place a computer in her own house.

Grandma and her laptop

When you notice that she is getting some sort of routine playing the card games on your computer, then she deserves her own computer. You might consider to get her a laptop instead of a big computer. It will not take so much space and it might actually look less scary.

The first thing that she needs to learn now, is how to switch on and how to switch off the computer. You can write this on a piece of paper. Also add some drawings of the computer with exactly where she can find the buttons. Then you can show her how to start the card game. You can make a short cut to the game, or show her how to start it from the start menu. If you show her how to start the game from the start menu, she will already become familiar with the start menu.

Don't show her anything else! Don't show her all the cool programs that you have already installed on the machine! Don't show her all the amazing games that you would like to see her play. Don't show her where you stored the hundreds of photos of all her grandchildren. Don't show her how to print something and don't show her how to connect to the internet.

The only way to learn something is to do it step by step, very slowly. If you give too much information at once, everything will be gone. Just write down and draw on that piece of paper how to switch on the computer, how to start the card game, how to close the card game and how to switch off the computer. NOTHING MORE!

Tell her that she should play the game at least once, when you are not there. She should turn on the computer, start the game, close the game and turn off the computer, at least once when you are not there. And only then, after she has done all that while you were not there, only then is the time to continue and to slowly show her all the great things that are possible with her new computer.

One last note

Please note that these days there are many grandmothers that know very well how to use a computer. There are grandmothers that are professional programmers, developers, designers, etc. working day and night with computers.

In this article I am using the example of the grandmother that has never used a computer. However, you can use the information in this article to teach any adult that has never used a computer. In this article I am giving some information from my own experience on how to teach adults how to use the computer. All the information in this article is from my own experience and, to be honest, I am not sure if it really works.

I have helped many people around me to start using computers. Some of them are very experienced by now in using the computer. Others are still afraid even just to touch the monitor, even after years of trying to get them interested... Still I hope that my experiences, described in this article, can help you in situations where you are trying to teach someone how to use the computer. Let me know if it has helped.


Mary on January 15, 2011:

Thank you. You reminded me that the mouse was awkward once, as was double-clicking. The solitaire idea is excellent!

cym (author) from Europe on November 12, 2010:

Hello Anaya, thanks for your comment. I remember even my own very first computer in the beginning of the 90's had a mouse tutorial on it. I played with it for about one afternoon. It seemed a bit silly, but it made me realize that you really need to learn first using the mouse, somewhat like learning how to hold and move a pen before you can start to learn how to write.

cym (author) from Europe on November 12, 2010:

Hello onegoodwoman, don't worry about having to ask your kids. Kids are learning things in a different way than adults. They are growing up with computers everywhere around them and most of them cannot even imagine a time anymore without computers. They are usually learning by just trying things out and see what happens.. Adults are usually a bit more careful ;-)

Anaya M. Baker from North Carolina on October 21, 2010:

Great article! I remember back in the '90's when we first got our family computer my mom using a "mouse tutorial" to practice moving, clicking, and dragging items. I thought it was so silly then, but she really did need to learn from the ground up. My mom eventually became computer literate, but my dad is another story...quite similar to your hypothetical grandma.

onegoodwoman from A small southern town on October 21, 2010:

Ooohhh.....I understand this was not meant to be funny, but I saw myself in it. I am among those, who have to ask my kids to show me how to do something!

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