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THE DIGITAL SENIORS

As Covid-19 spread across the globe, older individuals found themselves at a disadvantage, but many are quickly playing catch-up.
Published 18 Oct, 2020 08:51am

As Covid-19 spread across the globe, tech skills suddenly became more essential than they ever were before. Initially, older individuals found themselves at a disadvantage, but many are quickly playing catch-up. From attending their grandchildren’s Zoom weddings, to logging in for check-ups on e-clinics, these seniors are discovering new ways of staying connected and productive. Will it last?



Seventy-one-year old Jawed Khan, who lives in New Jersey, looks forward to his trips back to Pakistan every year. “Despite the good life I have here with my son, there will never be any place like Pakistan,” he says wistfully. This year’s visit was going to be extra special. In April, Mr Khan was supposed to attend his grandson’s wedding back home.

But his plans never materialised. The pandemic hit and air travel became exceedingly difficult, especially for senior citizens such as Mr Khan.

“I could have never imagined missing my grandson’s wedding,” he tells Eos. “But my children refused to let me travel.” He recognises that they were right, but for a self-described “family man,” not being at the wedding was painful. Still, Mr Khan advised his family against postponing the festivities. “Happy moments should not be delayed,” he recalls telling them, sounding like every other desi grandparent.

When the big day came, his children in Pakistan tried to make him feel as included in the ceremony as possible. They set up a Zoom link so the grandpa could attend virtually. But it was not the same. “No technology can ever feel the same as sharing those moments in person,” Mr Khan says. His Zoom attendance was only made more difficult by the fact that he had never used the app before.

Being part of a grid full of familiar faces felt nice. But sitting silently in front of a screen, in a different time zone from his children, Mr Khan says he felt detached. He regrets that he was unable to attend all the festivities in person, and physically congratulate his family. But even so, he’s glad that he could be a small part of the wedding and acknowledges all the effort his children put into making this possible.

Like Mr Khan, many parents and grandparents, who no longer live on the same continent as their children, turn to tech solutions to bypass the distances. They remember a time when living away from loved ones would mean months of silence and no contact with them, broken only by brief (and expensive) calls. But the internet has changed these dynamics. Indeed, many seniors become more tech-savvy when their children move away and they are put in a situation where learning these skills is the only way to stay in touch with their children.

During the pandemic and the resultant lockdowns, as reliance on the internet for even the simplest of tasks increased, many seniors similarly found themselves with no option but to learn new tech skills. Some of these grandparents and parents have been critical of youngsters’ use of their devices. They’ve despised the way the bachay [kids] are always glued to their screens. And they’ve repeatedly reminded their children and grandchildren that, humarey zamaaney mein aesa nahin hota tha [things did not happen this way in our time].

But Covid-19 has forced even these critics to move online. And while they’ve struggled, many like Mr Khan have started to see that digital solutions are not all bad.


MAKING CONNECTIONS

Composite illustrations by Samiah Bilal
Composite illustrations by Samiah Bilal

Mrs Shahida Zareen thoroughly washes her hands and then moves on to her arms. Anyone not familiar with the process of wuzu (ablution) may think the 62-year-old is washing her hands so thoroughly because of the Covid-19 scare. Instead, Mrs Zareen is getting ready for her virtual Quran class.

“We may not be able to go to class in person but we all still get dressed up and join each other on Zoom,” she says. “It makes us feel better connecting.”

Mrs Zareen tries to keep a positive outlook as the world battles Covid-19. Even though she has lived the majority of her life in an internet-free world, she has picked up tech skills fairly quickly over the past few months to adapt to the ‘new normal.’ Living in an army setting after her marriage, the constant changes that come with moving have perhaps made her more comfortable with adapting. She speaks in detail about changing with the times, and making sure we grow along with the world.

When Mrs Zareen’s husband contracted the coronavirus, she knew it was time to change gears once again. It became all the more important that her husband took care of both his mental and physical health. “You must be thinking that army officers watch the news for entertainment,” she says laughingly. “But, for the first time, my husband and I actually enjoyed Ertugrul.” When Mrs Zareen’s husband isolated, she saw the undeniable benefits of having a Smart TV, and access to Netflix and YouTube.

Mrs Zareen obviously enjoys a certain lifestyle. Having household help was always common and, with age and time, she has become more dependent on that help. But the lockdown restrictions also allowed her to experience a new kind of independence online. “At my age, doctors don’t like me driving,” she says. The lockdown was the first time Mrs Zareen realised that she did not need to drive, or be driven, to the store to buy groceries; she could get whatever she needed delivered right to her doorstep.

With her Netflix binge-watching and online shopping sprees, Mrs Zareen has managed to stay connected with the outside world. And with her Zoom Quran classes, she has discovered a new way of connecting with her spiritual side.

This is a connection 66-year-old Mrs Rukhsana Rizwan is all too familiar with. In a pre-Covid world, Mrs Rizwan was taking meditation classes, focusing on self-development. But as her classes moved online, she struggled to develop an understanding of skills that she had never had to use before.

During the pandemic and the resultant lockdowns, as reliance on the internet for even the simplest of tasks increased, many seniors similarly found themselves with no option but to learn new tech skills. Some of these grandparents and parents have been critical of youngsters’ use of their devices...But Covid-19 has forced even these critics to move online. And while they’ve struggled, many like Mr Khan have started to see that digital solutions are not all bad.

As Mrs Rizwan settled down for her first class, months ago, things didn’t seem so easy. She dreaded trying to familiarise herself with online platforms. After all, she had tried to learn computer skills multiple times before and failed. And it goes without saying that age and time had made it harder and harder for her to pick up these skills. Nonetheless, with her meditation classes shifting online, Mrs Rizwan decided she needed to give it all another shot.

With her daughter busy with her own work, Mrs Rizwan asked for the assistance of one of her household helps. The two of them tried to make things work. But as luck would have it, through internet problems and electricity issues, something or the other would interrupt her classes, making for a far-from-ideal scenario to meditate. She would sit down for class, only to realise signing in took much longer than anticipated. And even when she finally managed to sign in, it did not feel the same. “The energy was off,” she says. “That energy that comes together, in person, did not come off in online classes.” The classes meant for meditation ended up increasing Mrs Rizwan’s anxiety.

“With something like self-development, a lot of hard truths need to be spoken and heard,” she says. But with the classes being conducted online, and answers often being shared with the entire group, she no longer feels that she can open up in the same way.

Still, something is better than nothing. Besides, a few months in, Mrs Rizwan is more confident in her tech skills and can even see a few silver linings in her classes transition to Vimeo. “Now I can even listen to my classes in my pyjamas,” she says. “I no longer have to face the hassle of dressing up and managing my day according to how and when I need to go out.” This is a joy students of all ages have discovered around the world. And Mrs Rizwan is no different.

All said and done, Mrs Rizwan is grateful for her classes. “I’ve learned so much about myself in these classes. And in doing so, I’ve learnt so much about my religion and the world around me,” she says.


UNLIKELY TEACHERS

While Mrs Rizwan and Mrs Zareen turned to tech to make healthy use of their time during the lockdown, many older individuals had to quickly pick up these skills to adapt to the pressures of working from home. The nature of many office jobs changed almost overnight, and seniors who lacked tech skills found themselves at a disadvantage.

Educational institutes were amongst the first go through this transition. Many senior teachers at junior and middle schools, who had never used a computer at work, were suddenly expected to teach online. To teach their students, they first had to learn computer skills themselves. As classes went online, many students found themselves advising their teachers on how to unmute their microphones and share their screens on Google Meet.

Mrs Ayesha Naveed, who teaches school children, wasn’t too pleased with the sudden switch to online classes. At 54 years old, Mrs Naveed is far from a senior citizen, but she had never taught online and felt like she lacked the skills to hold online classes. As she sat with her phone in front of her, watching the tutorial sent out to all teachers, she felt a bit conscious. A few classes in, she realised that the focus and additional effort online classes require were having a physical impact on her body as well. “My shoulders and back would get so stressed out because they were hunched over a computer all day,” she says.

Mrs Naveed sees no point in beating around the bush. Transitions have been hard and certain aspects have only made it harder. “As a teacher, it was very stressful teaching children online, because students often find it hard to accept that teachers can make mistakes as well,” she says.

Mr Shahpur Jamall, the principal of Bay View Academy in Karachi, recognised that many of the older teachers at his school were not tech-savvy and comfortable with online classes. With students from kindergarten to Grade 11 back in school now, and all systems in place to facilitate safe in-person learning, it’s hard to imagine what the situation must have been like a few months ago. However, the administration had to face a series of challenges to get to the point they are today.

“As the principal, I felt that my main job was to encourage my teachers for their efforts, rather than reward only the results,” says Mr Jamall. At his school, younger teachers were tasked with preparing older faculty members for online classes. The training sessions often took a long time, as some teachers started with the absolute basics of operating computers.

When training first started, many older teachers, who struggled with adapting to technology, were afraid. Used to the stern marks of pen on paper, this generation of teachers have devoted their lives to their students — despite all the challenges the profession has brought. Yet, even as they stood tall in the face of all sorts of difficulties, they shied away from the idea of experimenting with new online platforms.

“Older teachers had a fear that they would do something wrong,” Mr Jamall says. “They couldn’t get used to the idea that they could learn and make mistakes, that they could experiment without being judged.”

So Google Classrooms were created and training sessions were devised. The teachers could go through each step laid out in the tutorials, on their own time. The same teachers who were struggling with a mouse pad a few months are now willingly incorporating elements of virtual learning into their physical classrooms as well.

Returning students are seeing a major shift from the black and white worksheets they were used to.


LEARNING NEVER STOPS

Mrs Tehmina Aizad’s learning also started online, much before the Covid-19 lockdowns. “The first time I ever used YouTube was when my husband introduced me to videos that explained glass crafts,” says Mrs Aizad, who now runs a hand-stained crafts business. “It ended up being a huge help because without them, I wouldn’t have been able to understand the course I later took to help start my business.”

She’s been learning constantly since then, watching videos for hours and hours. For someone who has relied on books alone her entire life, the fact that a lot of information is now accessible online was a revelation.

During the pandemic, most people have been very strict with their older parents and grandparents, refusing to let them go out of the house because they are more vulnerable. With old age come many illnesses and ailments, but the years also bring with them loneliness. As the pandemic is robbing seniors of even little joys, such as going to the park with their grandchildren or giving their children a hug, they are finding other ways to beat this loneliness and stay busy.

After much research and work, Mrs Aizad finally launched her dream business. “It is the first of its kind in the country. No one is making glass products by hand,” she proudly claims, adding that the business allows her to stay busy and keep her creative gears running.

But as luck would have it, right when Mrs Aizad launched Aurora Glass Designs in March, the country — and, indeed, the world — went into lockdown. As Mrs Aizad faced unexpected challenges, she tried to keep her “get it done” attitude going. She knew that it was up to her to find new ways to make her business a success, even when unexpected challenges arose. One such challenge came right when lockdown began.

“Because I couldn’t travel, and because there were so many restrictions, it became impossible to go and physically source materials for myself,” she says. “For the first time, I had to rely on platforms such as Daraz to find my materials, but I managed.” As she did, she also applauded the user-friendly nature of such platforms, that allow even tech-newbies such as her to figure their way around with ease. This user-friendly nature allowed many older business owners to pivot and continue to flourish during the lockdowns.


TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

In the hilly district of Haripur, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Syeda Abida sets up her computer as she prepares for her very first online exhibition. She’s come a long way from the days where the fruits of her talent would only be enjoyed by the people she had grown up with. The exhibition she’s preparing for will be seen by possible customers across the country, who can now get in touch with her through her own online platform or the website of Aangan — a project of the non-profit organisation Kaarvan Crafts Foundation.

A skilled seamstress and artisan, Ms Abida has been practicing her craft for ages. But she did not have much experience selling her products online. Thankfully, through Kaarvan Foundation’s digital platform, she can now get in touch with customers across the country via email and phone.

“The kurta that I uploaded on the Aangan website, the one with big flowers, is very much in demand,” she excitedly tells Eos. “I have sold between 20 to 25 pieces. People contact me directly for that. Same is the case with a shawl that I uploaded — it keeps selling,” she adds.

The idea of having online exhibitions was part of Kaarvan’s efforts to ensure their artisans, many of whom are older women, adapt to the changing world, especially during the pandemic. Ms Abida has had to adjust to the lack of interaction with her customers, but her business savvy mindset has helped her adapt. She’s been over the moon with her success online during these uncertain times.

Ms Abida is only one of the artisans who has benefited from the initiative. And Aangan is far from the only platform where businesses flourished online. But if it weren’t for the support of the initiative, Ms Abida would likely have struggled more. During lockdown, as many businesses moved online, smaller businesses, run by older individuals, often lagged behind in the competitive online space.

“Thanks to Allah, corona has not affected me like it has hit most people,” says Ms Abida. “My sales are going on from Peshawar to Karachi…Work is going well, Mashallah.”

THE NEW NORMAL

Like Ms Abida, many seniors feel that they could not have gotten by during the past few months without a little help. When asked about how the Covid lockdowns have impacted his life, 73-year-old Mr Naveed Ali promptly responds with, “Alhamdulillah.” “My children were there the whole time,” he says. “They made sure I had no difficulty.”

At this point in his life, Mr Ali finds comfort in repetition. Years of constant doctors’ appointments have made him used to spending hours in waiting rooms and having to take wheelchairs around the hospital premises. And while such a routine may seem tough to an outsider, it is one Mr Ali has settled into.

“I had never done online [doctor’s] appointments before, and I could never understand the concept,” he says. The idea of an online check-up made him feel like the doctor would not be thorough. But the very same health conditions that made hospitals such a big part of Mr Ali’s routine, also made it almost impossible for him to visit hospitals without risk. His children and doctors put their foot down and, eventually, Mr Ali had to give in.

“The first appointment seemed awkward, but with my children’s help, and the doctor answering all my questions, I felt as comfortable as I normally would,” he says, sharing his experience with e-clinics. As he has this conversation, he is also preparing to pick up the phone for another online doctor’s appointment. Normally, he would be spending this time in a hospital waiting room, often having to speak to one staff member after another to make sure he is taken in to see the doctor on time.

“I love that I can now attend appointments from my bed. I don’t think I realised how easy it would be,” he says. His outlook on e-clinics has changed over the past many months.

The reluctance that Mr Ali showed towards trying out online solutions is perhaps only natural. Going to the doctor not only means getting their check-ups but, for many seniors, it is the only meaningful interaction they have with another person outside their homes. Indeed, for some, sitting in the waiting room also provides an opportunity to reconnect and spend time with their own children, who may live with them but are otherwise busy in their daily lives.

During the pandemic, most people have been very strict with their older parents and grandparents, refusing to let them go out of the house because they are more vulnerable. With old age come many illnesses and ailments, but the years also bring with them loneliness. As the pandemic is robbing seniors of even little joys, such as going to the park with their grandchildren or giving their children a hug, they are finding other ways to beat this loneliness and stay busy.

For many such individuals, picking up tech skills is part of adapting for the ‘new normal.’ It’s not always easy, but those still learning new things well into their seventies are an inspiration to youngsters, struggling in their own way to deal with their current reality.


The writer studied history at the London School of Economics, and has written for Huck Magazine, Vice UK and Gal-Dem, among others. She tweets @anmolirfan22