Jerry Dyer's technophobic in-laws tend to get visibly uncomfortable around computers.
"They think it's some kind of disease," the 80-year-old Grand Junction, Colo., resident says. "You'll want to show them something on the computer, and they look at it for a few minutes and walk out of the room. I might have been guilty of the same thing before we got one."
See also: Does the iPad have senior appeal?
Ever since Dyer and his wife, Gay, 80, bought a Hewlett-Packard desktop computer several years ago, he has grown accustomed to emailing with his old Army buddies and even doing some Internet shopping (although he draws the line at online banking).
The Dyers are among a distinct minority of people in their age group who have gotten online. While younger folks are busy using email, Facebook and Twitter, it turns out that about 62 percent of people 75 and older still don't own a computer, according to recent surveys.
Why more older adults don't adapt to new computer technology, and what to do about it, are vexing questions, says Florida State University's Neil Charness, a researcher at the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE), which is affiliated with Florida State, the University of Miami and Georgia Institute of Technology.
It seems a big reason is that not all computer users are created equal, a fact that computer designers and software engineers have not always seemed to recognize. As we age, changes in perception and motor control may make it harder to see a computer screen, type on a keyboard or use a mouse, Charness says. And then there's the added time it takes to learn a complicated new routine — spreadsheet software, for example.
"Learning new things definitely takes more time as you get older," Charness says. "The brain shows moderately steady decline from your late teens onwards, in terms of the flexibility to form new circuitry."
Psychology and motivation are often overlooked factors, adds Charness, who suggests that older people weigh benefits heavily when deciding whether to adopt new technology.
"If it takes you twice as long to learn something, why would you invest that time when you could be drawing on your crystallized intelligence — your already acquired knowledge — and doing things you enjoy doing?" Charness asks.