Elderly and Computers

If ever there was a sensitive topic to discuss, it would have to be about the elderly and computers.

This article is really intended more for younger people who love and may care for elders in their lives. I'll discuss observations that I've made from my position as an I.T. consultant helping these older folks.

While I do a lot of commercial work and that is my main source of income, I do enjoy doing residential work as well. There's just not enough good and responsive I.T. people that accept residential work so residental folk often have nowhere to turn. I enjoy helping people get the most from their technology, be that computers, phones, TVs, whatever.

A fair number of my residential clients are older folks who didn't grow up with computers. And sadly, I've witnessed the cognitive decline of some of my more elderly clients, people for whom I've worked for many years. They were competent enough years ago when our working relationship began, but I've witnessed declines as the years passed. 

​We as a first-world society are in an interesting and fairly new place right now with respect to computing devices, the critical importance they serve in life today, and the unfettered inbound and outbound access they facilitate. Never before was such a strange, unintuitive, and utterly inscrutable device in pretty much every home and also had the power to materially affect ones well-being.

Think of everything people do on a computer: Banking, email, ​social networking, research, playing games, job hunting, meeting people to date, the list goes on. Elderly folks do a lot of these things, too. But as cognition declines, the risk to elderly from online fraud or just simply the inability to navigate the online waters grows substantially.

Complexity

A long-time client who already struggles with his computer due to cognitive impairment upgraded his computer from Windows 7 to Windows 10. Why did he upgrade? Because a box popped up saying he should and so he did. Well that was it. He was completely unable to use his computer afterward. Since this client lives a thousand miles away, I am unable to assist him in person. And he is so helpless with the new layout that I cannot even walk him through how to start a browser session and download my remote help tool. And before you ask, no, I don't use words like "start a browser session". It's more like "click on the blue e". After spending almost an hour on the phone between him and his wife, I never could talk him or her through the process of starting his browser, let alone downloading my remote help software. So now his computer just sits there idle, waiting until the next time I travel up north to help him in person. This is upsetting to me and my client. This client is no dummy. He's a retired physician who can easily discuss medicine and political matters. But the years take their toll on everybody and the first things to go are things for which one was never expert in the first place -- in this case, computers and how to operate them.

Recall I said he struggled with his computer even before upgrading to Windows 10. One of the things he struggled with was online banking and managing his considerable brokerage account assets. At this stage in his life and declining cognition, I am recommending that he abandon using his computer for anything other than casual email and web surfing. And for that, I will probably buy him an iPad where he's far less likely to get into trouble.

Online Fraud

The elderly are far more likely to be duped by con men operating online or by phone. Such cons take many forms. They may appear as any of the following and this is just a partial list.  There's no limit to the imagination of these scammers.

  • A technician from Microsoft, Dell, Norton, or whoever warning about a virus

  • A foreign official with grave news about a loved one being arrested

  • A friend who is traveling and lost all their luggage, passport, and money

  • An officer of the court with bail instructions

  • A person on a dating site that is showing interest and wants to develop a friendship

  • A banking official who warns that an account is being hijacked and needs to verify some information to help prevent theft

  • An IRS agent warning that taxes are due or even that a refund is coming and needs banking information to process

  • The infamous prince or deposed king who has millions in assets that he needs help transferring from his country

  • A lottery official offering congratulations on a big win but just needs fees and taxes in order to process the winnings

  • A notification of a contest win for some valuable prize like a TV, car, etc. and banking details are needed to process

  • Shipping notifications from UPS, Fedex, etc., advising that a parcel could not be delivered and to click a link to claim

  • Requesting donations for a major disaster relief effort somewhere

  • Email saying you've won a cruise or other vacation

  • Email warning that you missed jury duty and must pay a fine to avoid arrest

  • Notification that fraud was detected and reversed and needs to you verify that

  • In-person delivery of a gift basket, wine, flowers, etc. and the driver needs to process your credit card to confirm identity.

  • and many more...


To be sure, plenty of younger folks fall for these scams as well, but older folks are more heavily targeted. They're more susceptible as they tend to be more trusting, perhaps lonely, have more money, and often suffer from declining cognition. It's a perfect storm for elder abuse.

Many of these scams are delivered over the computer through email or social networks in addition to the telephone.

Just as many elders reach the day when they can no longer safely operate a motor vehicle or live alone, so too will they reach a day when the computer is too unsafe. Or at the very least too complicated to use. In the case of the latter, perhaps an iPad with it's somewhat-reduced functionality and simpler interface might be a good alternative.

 

To be sure, an iPad is not the answer to online scams as these scams are usually delivered by email. The main advantage to an iPad is just that it's simpler to use, highly portable for easy use all over the home, and far less likely to have technical problems that a senior could never fix.

Preventative Measures

If you have an elderly loved one in your life that you are worried about there's a few things you can do:

Email Shadowing: Get their email password and regularly check their email for any sign of scams. Look in the inbox for scammy email -- and the sent folder as well to see if they responded to any scams. Simply delete any scammy email you see in the inbox. If you see a reply in the sent box, contact the elder immediately. I recommend converting them to Gmail as their spam and scam filters work very well. If you don't want to constantly log into their email, you may be able to set up a forwarding rule that sends you a copy of everything they receive. Gmail allows this.

Telephone Policy: Advise them to hang up on absolutely anyone who calls that they don't personally know and to report that call to you. You can decide if there's any merit to the call. e.g. Maybe it really is their bank. If so, you can call and get the details. You might consider changing their phone number to a fresh number then give that number to important people. Many long-time phone numbers that are associated to the elderly get a ton of targeted fraud calls and telemarketing.

Bank Shadowing: Have your elder add you to their accounts so you can monitor them for any suspicious outgoing activity. Talk to the bank to see if you can disable outbound wire transfers. There's no reason the average elderly person needs to wire out money. Or set it up where both you and the account holder must visit the bank in person to perform a wire transfer. See if you can "demote" the elder person's account access, limiting their ability to clean out the account on the orders of a scammer. Ask about automatic alerts that can warn you if too much money is attempting to leave the account in a short time or to oddball online merchants. These are all signs of a scam. If the bank won't help, threaten to change banks to one that will. This sort of pressure will eventually force banks to offer anti-fraud services to their elderly clientele. A small community bank or credit union is often more likely to help than a giant monster megabank.

Guardianship: If your elder is pretty far along the road of cognitive decline to the point they are a danger to themselves physically or financially, then you can ask the court for guardianship. This may sound drastic but may be necessary to legally assert control over your elder's well being. Some elders stubbornly hold onto independence and refuse to allow their children to get "too involved" with their affairs. They often don't recognize their own increasing impairment or deny that it's happening, waving it off as just being confused or tired. As a court-appointed guardian, you are legally empowered to act in the elder's best interest even if the elder doesn't see it that way.

The November 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine has a feature article on this topic entitled "A Crying Shame: Seniors and their families lose $3 billion a year to con artists. What can we do to stop them?"