Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mobile Seniors

For the elderly, mobile phones are about sociability. Perhaps because that's what is missing in their lonesome lives

Dharma Adhikari
One of the beauties of technological adoption is that there are still many sections of our society in the phase of what social scientists call "domestication of new technologies"— how technology is integrated into users' everyday life, and how it adapts to that environment.

Our transition to electronic culture, or "secondary orality", to borrow from Walter Ong, an American technophile, is affecting our lives, work and leisure in profound ways.

In my last column, I discussed the cultural appropriation of technology among the youth. The elderly population is another important section, and one of the most overlooked in spite of the significant communication challenges they face. The seniors above the age of 60 now comprise over 8 percent of national population. They are poised to redefine the future of the country as their number is growing faster than that of the total population.

During my stay in Jhapa these past few months, I have had a chance to witness this transition. It is also true that my tech conversations with my aging father led me to this topic. I find that the mobile phone has become part of his routine life and that its novelty has somewhat worn out for him.

That's when I got the impulse to talk to more senior citizens. I managed to interview 12 people above the age of 65. Among them were three women and three non-phone users. I was interested in their cultural appropriation of mobile phones.


Unlike the youth who tend to equate a mobile phone with multi-tasking, and brand with personal status, senior citizens attach some unique meanings to their devices.

As a user tried to define, there is a certain mystery about mobile phone: "I've been trying to figure out what it is; there was nothing like this before." It was important for her to mention that her grandson often takes away her set to play with it (A mobile phone is something that knows no age barrier).

It is more verb than noun for them: "Gets us personal, reliable news" from afar; "works like a post office" of yesteryears; "we speak while someone hears on the other side"; "makes things possible immediately"; "helps us know useful things from distant places easily; "helps us talk instantly," etc. One user called it "exchange" and another defined it as "aawaa (telegram) without a long queue".

These users were a mix of mostly illiterate and semi-literate persons. Most of them have owned their sets for three to five years. Only one of them carried a Samsung smart phone; others owned regular Nokia sets. All sets, except one, was gifted by family members working in foreign lands, typically in Qatar, UAE, Israel, the US, Canada and Hong Kong. The question of mobile ownership revealed unexpected insights into old-age isolation of phone owners, disintegration of traditional joint-family systems as well as the globalization of labor and their economic statuses.

Illiteracy, cost, presence of a landline or a mobile set already with a family member were often cited as reasons for not owning a mobile phone by non-users. The users described their first experience of using the set simply as "happy" and "good", soon to be flooded with memories of talking with their loved ones in distant lands often with those who gifted the sets in the first place. Mobile in itself isn't any longer magical but the memories caused by it are. They endure. First experiences also reveal something about users' social status, as early adopters, connected not just locally but also globally.

For the elderly, mobile phones are mostly about sociability. Perhaps because that is what is missing in their rather lonesome lives. Besides, the devices are used in emergency and they also serve to reinforce their cultural obligations related to life-cycle events, such as birth, marriage, death and other rituals.

For most users, phone activity includes casual conversations: Bhaat khanu bho? Bimaya Dhimal, 68, recalls that the other night, her son called while she was eating and she talked with him between the gulps. A few others listen to radio and bhajan kirtan via memory cards. Domestic calls are meant for receiving only and international calls are to be made for they are cheaper from Nepal.

Tech literacy is limited to pressing the keys and oral communication. The elderly report no mobile addiction although some admit that they have the habit of constantly checking their pockets or girdles, just to make sure their phones are there.

Though limited in their mobile functions, some are aware of the larger mobile phenomenon in society. One user noted that mobiles have displaced wrist-watch, postal service, radio, calendar, and even calculator. Another recalled earlier technological diffusions. The gramophone in the mid-1950s and the radio in the 1960s etched out Dharma Raj Thapa in public memory: hoho male hoho, hoho tare hoho; hamro Tenzing Sherpale, etc.

Questions on user experience often remind them of their own handicaps and lost opportunities. As one user commented, "behold the wonders of mobile phone. I wish I were only a teenager to witness what is yet to come".

Users had a positive attitude to mobile phone for its universal access, liberating powers, privacy in personal matters, usefulness in health and other emergencies, immediacy, interactivity, direct engagement, and multiple functions, among others. Users also made repeated references to mobile's effectiveness in conveying births, deaths and inviting people to ceremonies. Some emphasized that the mobile made it possible and easy to request money from their children.

Unfortunately, as a disadvantage, more mobile phones in family meant that sons working in foreign lands communicated directly with daughter-in-laws at home, as an elderly citizen observed, and that "parents are never told how much money is actually transferred".

A user said that he cannot talk about everything on mobile; he would talk grief only in person. Another observed that before mobiles, it took weeks, if not months, to know about the deaths of relatives living away. Now it takes minutes. This has made jutho barne (ritual grieving) inescapable, frustrating scheduled events and even festivities.

Most find even simple mobile phones hard to use. Users lack grasp on the functions. Language issues, poor eye sight, hearing problems, dependence on others are other barriers. Wrong or threatening calls, misuse by others, recharge fees, network problems, and poor customer support irritate them. To avoid losing the mobile set, some attach it to a string.

Consistent with the notion of "third-person effect", most senior citizens emphasize that mobile phones affect the youth adversely. In what the elderly see as a perversion, the youth are spending too much time on useless talk and games, away from their studies.

As an advice, elderly users recommend senior-friendly user interface in mobile sets, with Devanagari letters, large fonts, amplified loudspeakers, fast and efficient customer care, etc. Also programmable, short-cut buttons or images for contacts, built-in flash light, simple camera, pre-defined emergency numbers would be of help. Proper handling of mobiles is also crucial, as one user with chest complaint learned: his doctor advised him to not keep his mobile set in his chest pocket.


Older people have often romanticized the use of technology by younger people. Today, mobiles are increasingly integrated into daily life of elders themselves, and the devices are becoming socially and techno-spiritually meaningful to them.

The missing link in the process of their domestication is lack of enthusiasm about how users' adaptations are actually impacting the change process. Markets have a way of ignoring economically inactive segments like the seniors. Government legislations and policies also remain silent on technological empowerment of the elderly.

The next generation seniors will be more critical and sophisticated users. Domestication then will require more than just taming technology for sociability.

Published in Republica, 15 December, 2015