BANGOR, Maine — At age 74, John Merrill has seen a lot in his lifetime.
The Etna resident remembers the advent of television. His first car was a used Ford Model A, which he bought as a teenager for $50. The Model A, which went out of production in 1931 but was considered out of date when Merrill bought his, featured a vast array of levers and toggles that would be completely foreign to drivers today.
“We were used to cars like that, even up into the ‘50s,” Merrill said.
Now, Merrill never imagined he’d have the ability to answer almost any question he could think of by “Googling it.” The integration of the Internet into daily life thanks to the rapid development of communications technology has amazed Merrill and left him excited about the future.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’re only scratching the surface with technology.” he said recently.
For Merrill and many of his senior peers, however, adapting to the digital age hasn’t been easy. Only 43 percent of adults age 65 or older use social media or access the internet, according to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center.
“Unfortunately a lot of seniors give up and just quit, which is too bad because they’re missing out.” said Merrill, who is doing his part to improve the statistics by becoming more adept at using online technology for both social and business purposes.
After watching a friend use Google on a desktop computer, Merrill decided to purchase a PC to help with record keeping for his work. Merrill is a denturist, someone who specializes in creating and fitting dentures, and sees the computer as a good way to keep track of his patients.
Merrill also has two children, who live in North Dakota and Florida. To keep in touch with them, Merrill has made learning to use Skype one of his goals.
“I’m trying to keep up with the computer thing because I know it’ll help with the business. The kids are getting it in school now, so it’s not as tough for them,” Merrill said. “What I’m seeing with myself and other seniors is it helps us keep in touch with the rest of the world.”
Learning social media
During the fall of 2013, Bangor City Council Chairman Ben Sprague volunteered to teach a social media class for seniors at the Hammond Street Senior Center, an activities and education facility in downtown Bangor. The class met once a week for eight weeks with the goal of helping seniors better understand social media and how it is used. Facebook was the popular focus.
Sprague said he found the underlying reason many seniors are being left behind in the digital age is a general reluctance to use new technology. Some seniors were intimidated by it, others had a general fear of looking incompetent, he said.
Bangor native Joseph Mizda, 82, is an exception.
Mizda teaches a computer education course at the Hammond Street Senior Center and has worked with technology his entire life. While working as a systems analyst for the U.S. Air Force, Mizda worked with one of the original IBM SAGE computers in 1952.
“[The SAGE] was the first real-time computer that was used by the Air Force to conduct intercepts. It had a six-microsecond memory cycle, and your desktop computer now is working in terabytes and it holds more data and information than the [SAGE] computer ever did.” Mizda said.
Mizda began teaching his fellow seniors about computers a few months ago, and the class has proven to be quite popular. While the focus of Sprague’s class was the use of social media, Mizda has focused most of his 5-8 person class around learning the basics of computer use.
Although there are desktop computers at the senior center that are available to members, Mizda encourages his students to bring in their own computers so that they can learn the programs and formats that they are likely to use on the device that they are most familiar with.
“I try to let them let me know what they want to learn. … A lot of people didn’t know how to download pictures from their cameras. We spent one class just downloading pictures from their cameras.” Mizda said.
Merrill joined the senior center last year and is a member of Mizda’s class. Although he still is learning the basics, he prefers the class over other adult-ed classes he has taken in the past.
“I’ve been trying to learn for several years. I’d go out to adult-ed classes, and they’d be teaching Apple when I have Windows at home and it doesn’t work out.” Merrill said.
Sprague said beyond the challenge of learning new technology, he found some seniors said they were opposed to the openness and perceived lack of privacy that comes with social media.
“There’s a generational gap [in philosophy] about how much information people are comfortable sharing online. Senior citizens don’t always understand why younger people are so comfortable putting themselves out there on social media.” Sprague said.
Mizda is one such senior.
“I hate Facebook … It’s open to everybody. Anybody can see whatever you put on there. There’s no privacy whatsoever,” Mizda said. “A lot of people love it. So be it, they’re welcome to it.”
Although Mizda and Sprague may have different views on social media, one thing they agree on is the level of interest that Maine seniors have in learning how to use new technology to communicate. Pew research shows adults age 65 or older have actually been the fastest rising demographic in social media adoption.
For many at the senior center, learning how to use technology and social media has been an enjoyable experience. Johnny Hammond, the resident cat, has a Facebook page that is regularly updated with pictures of the various activities that the seniors take part in. Every senior at the center who has a Facebook page is friends with him, and they are active on the page.
The senior center’s 500 or so members consist mostly of Bangor residents as well as some from surrounding towns such as Orono, Old Town and Hampden.
In the interest of staying in tune with membership, Hammond Street Senior Center Executive Director Kathy Bernier recently surveyed members regarding their use of technology, the internet and social media. About 70 percent of seniors surveyed started using social media four or more years ago, with 58 percent saying that it is important for them to use it on a daily basis.
Family seems to play a large role. Seventy percent of the seniors who took the survey were introduced to social media through their family, with 55 percent saying that they use it to keep up with their friends and family.
Bernier’s survey results also pointed to a need for help in adapting to new technology, with about 61 percent saying that adapting to social media is average or slightly difficult and 13 percent saying that they find it difficult and need help. Fifty-nine percent said they couldn’t learn to use social media without some sort of assistance.
There are 76.4 million graying baby boomers in the country, those age 50-68, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Orono resident Ed Brazee, 66, is one of them.
After spending 25 years as a professor at the University of Maine, Brazee retired in 2010. He and some of his colleagues wanted to find a way to help baby boomers acclimate to the digital revolution.
In March of 2014, Brazee helped found BoomerTECH Adventures, a small educational organization aimed at setting up multi-day retreats at different towns in Maine where baby boomers and seniors can get together and learn how social media works at the business and personal levels.
The organization’s first retreat will be held in Orono at the University of Maine campus from Sept. 28 to Oct. 2.
“Nobody ever really retires anymore. They may retire from their original job, but now they keep things going online,” Brazee said. “As the baby boomers get up into ‘senior land’ we’ll stay in touch [with technology].We think of ourselves as being about 15 years younger than we actually are.”
As more seniors adapt to digital technology, Merrill believes that the industry will evolve to make things easier as well.
“I’m hoping that in time, computers will be simpler and easier to use. I hope it’s like how automobiles have gotten easier to use,” said Merrill. “When I was driving the old Model A’s, you’d have to use the throttle with your hand and shift with all these levers, and now it’s so much easier.”
Editor’s note: A recent documentary titled ‘ Cyber-Seniors‘ follows a group of seniors taught by teenage volunteers how to use various forms of technology and media that are popular today.
The Bangor Daily News is interested in finding out how its senior readers are faring with social media and the internet. By clicking here you can fill out the same survey given at the Hammond Street Senior Center. Once enough data is collected, a follow-up story will be posted with the results.