28 September

Mansion Meditation Subject: When Technology Frustrates And Overwhelms Those At The Edge Of Life

by Jon Katz

(Photo, Ellen, newest member of our Mansion Meditation Class.)

When I first volunteered at the Mansion,  sometime in 2014, very few of the residents had or used new information technology. There was no widescreen TV, no Ipads or tablets, and a handful of cellphones.

When the residents and their families wanted to talk to someone outside, they would go to the office and use the staff telephones. Privacy was complex, and the phones were often busy or needed for emergencies.

In 2021, the residents live in a different world. Almost all of them, thanks to you and me, to be honest, have either cellphones or tablets or Ipads. All of them have large-screen television sets, also thanks primarily to us.  In Medicaid facilities, the residents need more help buying these devices, but they are no longer rare in a nursing homes and assisted care facilities.

The residents tell me how grateful they are to be independent communicators, they love being able to go to their rooms and watch the TV shows they like, and they love watching movies and listening to music on these devices as well.  They feel much more connected to their families, and the world, and their grandkids and friends on the outside.

These tools enrich their lives,  stave off loneliness, stimulate their minds and keep them close to their children; I’ve seen that happen.

But in meditation class this morning, I chose the topic of technology, and I got a more complex picture: how new technology has affected life inside residences for the extreme elderly.  It’s not all good. I know from my writing that technology is a double-edged sword; it gives things and takes something away.

The most important thing I learned in this discussion is that facilities like the mansion need to have a tech support apparatus of one kind or another. Almost all residents report software and other breakdowns and problems that no one is responsible for fixing. Quite often, the residents forget or don’t want to ask for help.

The maintenance director helps Nathan set up these devices,  but he is swamped with work and is not always instantly available to fix them.

The conversation – which started as a meditation – grew and deepened; it went nearly an hour, my most extended focused discussion at the Mansion ever. The residents said technology was welcome and necessary, but it brought frustration and a sense of being overwhelmed.

“I used to call my grandchildren and talk to them on the phone,” said S, “but they don’t talk on the phone anymore, and I’m no good at texting; my fingers can’t do it quickly. They don’t seem to know how to talk. It’s hard to talk with them.”

Their children often rely on e-mail now or texts; they call much less and rarely answer their home phones.  M said she got a table a month ago (we gave it to her), but she did something with the wrong app, and it hasn’t worked since. She’s ashamed to admit she messed up her tablet to the aides or me.

“They work hard enough,’ she said, “I don’t want to be asking them to fix a new machine somebody else bought, and I broke. And you were so kind to get it for me, and here I went and broke it right away. I wouldn’t expect you to get another one for me.”

(Another one is on its way.)

She said she missed having it dearly; she wanted a movie on it every night and listened to Beethoven, her favorite composer. Without it, she doesn’t sleep.

The other residents talked about password problems, systems freezing, the phone disconnecting from Wi-Fi, and other problems.

“We want to be able to communicate with the word,” J said, “but we need help; we can’t keep up.” It was a mixed message – they love these devices, but they also wear them down and make them feel overwhelmed.

Sometimes, G said, when things get bad, she knocks on a neighbor’s door, and they go into the dining room and have a cup of tea. “That feels awful good sometimes.”

I told them I had to bear responsibility for this frustration, I raised money for these devices, but I never followed through to make sure there were people around to help install, maintain and fix them. P, another meditation student, admitted that she got a device I bought for her, but it frightened her so much when she opened the package, she went into a panic and has never opened the package again. That was a month ago.

Help is on the way. We’re going to meet at the Mansion to figure out if someone on the staff  – or may a high school tech from the school’s technology program  -can volunteer to come to the Mansion once a week and help out. The school has always been helpful to the Mansion.

The topic was about being overwhelmed, and the tech discussion went on for so long we didn’t have time to get to anything else but a silent meditation of their own.  Every one of the residents thanked me and urged me to consider twice a week. I will; I love doing it. This is one of the most meaningful things I could be doing for the residents.

First, I learn to listen. Then, I know to help. Talking to the residents in this way, about the real issues they face, is critical. So are the puzzles and activities. But hearing them vet and think and talk to one another about their lives is a beautiful thing to do.

I passed our more meditation bracelets and necklaces (most coming from the Amish, and they were thrilled.


  1. Hey Jon. The conversation cards at Vertellis.com might be just the thing for the Mansion holidays. If you think so let me know. I’d be happy to buy them and send them through you!

    1. Susan, let’s try it if you are game, it sounds like something they would love and as the cards are new, there are no Covid 19 issues..You can send them to The Mansion, c/o Tania Woodward, 11 S. Union Avenue, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. thanks, much jon

  2. what a gorgeous portrait of the lovely Ellen.! Was this taken with your Leica? Just beautiful. I am heartwarmed to know the residents feel comfortable verbalizing their needs (and frustrations) to you, especially with this problem of keeping abreast of their *technology*. I know you will find a way to help them address this….they are lucky to have you as their advocate!
    Susan M

  3. Hi. Regarding the topic of tech support, would someone at a local library be interested in outreach of this sort? I live near East Greenbush and that library has a tech person at every farmers market held there. Every Wednesday. People with tech problems can come with their devices for help. No cost.

    Thanks for all that you do. Kind regards. Lynne

    I dont plan to comment so please do not save my info. Thank you

  4. I can so relate to this story. I have had devices for many years and have always been fairly comfortable using them. However the technology of the devices is expanding so fast that computers, phones etc, are obsolete within a couple years. I had a simple flip 3g phone which was all I wanted but was told that I had to buy a 4g or 5g phone if I wanted continued service. I bought another inexpensive flip phone (for talk and text) thinking it would be similar to the one I had. This one however came equipped like a smart phone. It took me days of watching how-to videos on Youtube and asking questions on Google to figure out how to use the text pad. I told a friend “I am not stupid but this thing is making me feel like I am”. So please tell all the wonderful people at the Mansion that they are not stupid, that they should not feel bad when they can’t figure something out. I hope that there is someone who will volunteer to help. Like you say it is very important to them and keeps them in contact with the outside world. Thank you Jon for being there for the residents all this time. I can’t imagine how sad their lives would be if you hadn’t stepped in and organized the Army of Good.

    1. Amen Jan. Jon is an angel & I’ve told him so.
      All the residents need to be assured that learning these devices takes time for everyone. Just keep trying & asking questions. The main thing is don’t give up.
      Another thought, has anyone tried to teach them the ‘talk to text’ feature?

  5. “It took me days of watching how-to videos on Youtube and asking questions on Google to figure out how to use the text pad. I told a friend “I am not stupid but this thing is making me feel like I am”. Good for Jan for recognizing that it isn’t a problem with her, it’s a learning curve!l

    Oooh boy, I work at a public library and I see this a lot! People of my generation (60+) whose kids and grandkids communicate with these devices and think they’re simple. When you sit down to figure out how to teach someone to use them, it’s complicated, and many people don’t have the patience it requires to break it down for their mother/father/aunt/uncle. Also, adult learners need practice and repetition to master something, not to be shown something once and expected to remember it.

  6. Jon…
    I’ll bet your discussion was lively; technology adoption topics often are. I fully agree with your implication that the need for technical support is continual. Kudos for your efforts to obtain this support.

    Please don’t let your class get down over technical failings. This field is complex and sometimes irrational. Difficulties can creep in from a source, and appear to be originating elsewhere. Patience is paramount.

    In web applications, remain aware that some problems arise from the host end. Recently, my attempts to use online customer support have had brutal endings.

    The irony is that this revolution began to make life easier and more enjoyable.

    Nevertheless, people are working to introduce exceptional technology applications, and to make them adaptable for non-technical users. This is not always easy or successful. But some of these systems represent such an advancement that a level of inconvenience is justifiable.

    Of particular note is the nexus between medical needs and high-technology solutions. An example is our experience with the mobile continuous heartbeat monitor. The system loaned to a patient consists of a sensor and a display. Both devices transmit data to a remote medical technician, and eventually to a cardiologist. The sensor transmits heartbeat data, not unlike an EKG. The system also transmits messages from the wearer about the symptoms they experience. Significantly, these messages can be concurrent.

    These expanded insights can replace hours of cardiologist interviewing and in-office testing, still ending with inferior results.

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