Bottom Line Inc

Anyone Can Do It: At 84, My Mother Enters the Smartphone Age 


I recently accompanied my 84-year-old mother to get her first iPhone. You would have thought I was taking a child to the doctor to get her school vaccines based on the fear written across her face.

But after years of her texting with my siblings and me…and her grandchildren…on a cell phone with a slide-out keyboard and then being frustrated and confused because it wasn’t “compatible” in the smartphone age, it was time for her to step up her game.

My mother is no shrinking violet—in fact, she is extremely good with technology. She ran Bottom Line’s customer-service operations for more than 30 years and continues to provide special support to customers with difficult problems or complex orders. She has a deep understanding of every data field displayed on her computer screen, so she knows her way around both computers and “transactions.” Then why the fear?

Based on her shrugs and whimpers, I would say it’s simply fear of change mixed with a good dose of fear of failure. Since I know how smart and capable she is, I couldn’t help but feel that her apprehension may also be a remnant of her Depression-era values, holding her back from a natural enthusiasm about trying a cool new toy.

Her old phone worked fine, so what does she need with all those colorful icons on the smartphone? What an indulgence that would be for someone whose brother wore burlap flour sacks for underwear. How overwhelming to her value system.

So there she was—a mixture of fear of change plus fear of failure mixed with a dollop of suppression of secret desire. Yet there I was, charging full steam ahead with her. Why was I so pushy? Because I knew that she could do it, and I knew that she would get great pleasure from being able to connect with her grandchildren more easily. Plus, my mother-in-law, who is the same age as my mother and very similar in many ways, is an iPhone-only woman. No land line. And I think she knows more tricks and shortcuts on her smartphone and laptop than I do. What’s the difference? A positive attitude, training and practice—lots of practice.

Mom picked the size…she picked the color…and we enrolled in “Phone School.” Our new BFF Greg patiently got her all set up. I had to run back to the office, so I left Mom in his capable hands to give her a quick getting-started overview of how to make a phone call and send a text. A half-hour later, she was back, smiling proudly yet still paralyzed with fear that she had forgotten everything he just said.

Five minutes later…she was in my office.

Mom: “Where do I find the messages?”  

Me: “Bottom of the screen. It’s green.”   

Mom: “Where? Oh. There it is. Thank you.” 

Five minutes later…

Mom: “How do I create a new message?” 

Me: “Just touch the screen and type the person’s name.” 

Mom: “It’s not working” (As she is pressing with her finger tip rather than finger pad.)   

Me: “Use the pad of your finger—gently. You don’t need to press hard.” 

Mom: “It’s not…oh…there it is! So I just type a name?” 

Me: Yes. 

Mom: “OK. I want to send a text to…oh, there it is!” 

With every question and every discovery, I could see her fear melt into relief.

The game went on for days…

“How do I send an e-mail?” 

“Press the envelope, and touch the same blank square with a pen as you do to write a new text.” 

“It’s the same?” 

“Yes. Don’t overthink it. Apple uses the same icons and commands.”   

“How do I add a new contact?” 

It was fascinating to watch the “no” before the “yes’…the “I don’t have it” before taking the steps to poke around and play with it. Contrast this with a five-year-old and a tablet. Tap. Tap. Tap. And the bells and whistles are whirring from the speaker. Smiles. Delight. Success!

“I don’t have maps on my phone.” 

“Yes, you do” 

“Oh, I found it!” 

Mind you, I am not mocking or picking on my mother. She is amazing, and she’s one of the smartest, strongest women I know. But what is it about grown-ups that makes us afraid to experiment and play? That we are so rule-bound when learning that we have forgotten how to simply explore and discover? I do it, too.

If my laptop doesn’t work, I quickly call the tech team when I am at the office or my husband when I am at home, rationalizing that I am just too busy with other things to spend time teaching myself the inner workings of my technology. Then again in other areas, I actually have challenged myself to step out of my comfort zone and return to the joy of exploration and discovery, be it a new athletic challenge like a 40-mile bike ride through all five boroughs of New York City…road trips to new places…going out for a festive evening with friends rather than staying safely in my jammies on the couch. And then there are all the new challenges I am confronted with each day as I work with my team to transform our company from print-centric to multimedia.

Two weeks after my mom got her smartphone, we went on a road trip to my daughter’s college for her graduation. It was rewarding to see that she had gotten “the bug.” Every time I turned to look at her in the back seat, she was looking at her smartphone screen—swiping, touching and playing. And when the weekend was over, it was the picture from her phone’s camera that caught the family photo…which she proudly forwarded to me via iMessage.

Moral of the story? It’s easy to stay safe. But it’s so much more fun to step outside to a whole new set of experiences. Take it from someone who spent many years as a “safety girl.”

What would you like to try?

Source: Sarah Hiner is president and chief executive officer of Stamford, Connecticut–based Bottom Line Inc., which publishes books and the consumer newsletters Bottom Line Health and Bottom Line Personal.
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