Covid-19 Exclusives: The Smartphone and the Elderly


THE SMARTPHONE BECAME a liberator of sorts for many of us when in-person connection was rendered impossible by lockdown restrictions and social distancing measures. Through grainy camera footage and choppy video call audio, we digital natives pulled through, finding alternative ways to stay connected with our loved ones.

But what about our elders? Were they left in the dust as the pandemic made technology a growing and unavoidable necessity? Penang Monthly speaks to three elderly Penangites with varying digital literacy, to glean their personal thoughts and feelings on the ubiquitous smartphone.

A Curious Gadget

Eighty-two-year-old Joon Keow does not own a smartphone. She instead uses a feature phone, a remnant from the touchscreen-less era with her relatives’ numbers on speed dial. Joon spends her days mostly at home, cooking, watching television, listening to the radio and exercising.

“If I tried learning how to use a smartphone I would definitely find it a challenge, I wouldn't be able to commit the things I learn to memory. I’m also illiterate, which is the biggest hurdle,” she says. Despite this, Joon defies the stereotype of the technophobic elder. Smartphones do not terrify her, she finds them immensely captivating.

Despite not owning a smartphone herself, Joon Keow is an octogenarian with an insatiable curiosity for the device.

Transfixed by the sheer amount of information one can access on such a small device, Joon remains pleasantly surprised by how one is able to know about the goings-on around the world with just a single click, and the way smartphones enable instantaneous communication is a fact that amazes her no end. “If I were my grandchild’s age, I would definitely want a smartphone. These phones are so incredible, they can do anything!” she says with awe.

Behind her mild-mannered demeanour and kind eyes lies a dormant desire. She would love to be able to use smartphones with the dexterity of her grandchildren, and brims with earnest questions for her smartphone-using relatives. But Joon reiterates that she has no need to pick up the handheld device at her age. “I’m content with where I am in life; I’ve let things go and I trust my family to support me, so there’s no need for me to learn how to use a smartphone.”

Family Comes First

When asked about the implementation of cashless payment systems at Penang’s wet markets, Tan Gim Cheng, 73, answers with a chuckle, “I wouldn’t worry, I’ll just bring my grandchildren along to help me.”

A smartphone user of five years, Tan mainly uses hers for calls and for looking at WhatsApp messages – messages she does not know how to reply to. Despite not knowing how to use her phone’s messaging function, Tan nonetheless finds emojis amusing. “But I do know how to check the winning lottery numbers,” she jokes.

Tan led a vibrant social life pre-MCO and normally attended singing, dance and tai chi classes with friends. But during the partial lockdown, she found comfort in capturing life's moments with the phone’s camera. That way she need not worry about forgetting cherished memories.

“If I tried learning how to use a smartphone I would definitely find it a challenge, I wouldn't be able to commit the things I learn to memory. I’m also illiterate, which is the biggest hurdle.”

She also kept in touch with her friends via her smartphone and spent time creating new dishes to feed her grandchildren, who came from afar to stay with her, making her lockdown experience a peaceful if lively one. “My dishes are very good!” she exclaims with a thumbs up and a grin.

Tan’s family is her support system and her world. Though she is well aware of the convenience a smartphone brings, she does not feel a pressing need to learn any of her phone’s other functions, such as car-hailing apps. Easy-going, she faces Penang’s digital transformation calmly, assured that she can depend on her family.

She shares similar views as Joon, citing forgetfulness and illiteracy as factors impeding elders from using smartphones. “For us old people, half of our lifetime is spent with our children and grandchildren, so there isn’t really a need to learn all these things.”

A boisterous soul Tan Gim Cheng can always count on her family in times of need.

An Essential Tool

While Joon and Tan see smartphones as an optional tool and not something that they cannot live without, Cheong Chein Kok, 63, considers the device a necessity.

A maintenance worker on Gurney Paragon Mall’s Operation Team, he uses his smartphone to communicate with his team and boss. “Whenever there’s a problem in the mall, a flickering bulb for instance, they would post it to the group chat, and we would go fix it. Once it’s been fixed, we’d update the group,” says Cheong. A former factory technician, he also deals with air conditioning and faulty piping in his current line of work.

When many found themselves working from home during the MCO, life did not slow down for Cheong. Since essential services such as supermarkets and pharmacies remained open, he went to work as normal, now using his smartphone to also fill in daily health declaration forms. In his spare time, he scrolls through Facebook, and like Tan, he has an app for checking lottery numbers. Not much of a YouTube viewer or mobile game player, this work-oriented man instead has a group chat with his hiking enthusiast friends.

Known to some as Uncle Cheong, Cheong Chein Kok is a whiz with the smartphone.

Having taught himself how to use his smartphone with help from friends, Cheong has been a user since it appeared on the market. He finds the smartphone easier to use than computers. That said, he too is aware of the difficulty that the elderly, particularly those in their 80s, face.

Cheong thinks however that while those already in their 80s will be less receptive to technology, those in their 60s and 70s should learn how to use a smartphone. “Live till old, learn till old,” he quotes the Chinese proverb. “They can learn it slowly, step-by-step.”

Cheong firmly believes that despite the odds, it is not impossible for the elderly to use a smartphone's basic functions. Even knowing how to video call, he notes, will make life a whole lot easier.

Cheah Mi Chelle is a student of English and Related Literature. Caught between the street food-filled streets of Penang and the cobblestoned alleyways of York, she loves volunteering with children and is interested in various topics such as medieval literature, graphic novels, and sentient robot fiction.

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