Every morning, John, Terry and Steve, three men in their early 70s, meet at their local McDonald’s for coffee and conversation. Friends since their car factory days, they still keep a routine — they share a copy of the newspaper, and together, read all the sections, discussing stories, politics, their families and what’s going on at church. But one day, John pulls something out of his coat: a shiny iPhone.
“Well, look at that,” Terry says, adjusting his “Firm Believer In Christ” baseball cap to get a clearer look. Steve takes a sip of his coffee — “Just coffee, none of this latte this or that” — and raises his eyebrows.
With his iPhone, John is an outlier — and a slightly uncomfortable one, at that. He explains to me that his daughter gave it to him as a gift, and like Terry and Steven, he’s on a fixed income, so even the cost of basic service is a burden — no thanks to the beating the economy gave his retirement income. “Put your money in annuities or T-bonds,” he likes to say. “You can’t trust Wall Street — they’re crooks.” To help out, John’s daughter put him and his second wife — “The first was a battle-ax,” he says — on her Verizon plan. It was time to upgrade, and his daughter thought it’d be nice for him to get an iPhone.
Much has been made of a “digital divide.” The lines are usually drawn between the rich and the not-so-rich, but it’s also generational: just over half — 53 percent — of Americans age 65 and older used the Internet or e-mail in 2012, according to the Pew Internet project. But there are signs of growth: nearly 70 percent of retirement-age adults had a mobile phone in 2012, up from about 60 percent in 2010.
The three men huddle over the iPhone, taking out their glasses to get a better look. Terry takes it up, squinting even with his red-rimmed glasses. Both John and Steven look at their friend in amazement as he expertly hits the home button and swipes through the screens. “Look at you!” they laugh. Terry, they explain, is the one who keeps up best with the times. He even has an iPad. When he had hip replacement surgery last year, his grandson brought over his iPad to keep him entertained during the hospital stay.
“At first I was like, don’t bother, I have CNN in my room,” Terry says. But he took a shine to the iPad and ended up buying one himself. He mostly uses it to surf the Web, but recently he mastered the podcast app, which he uses to download and listen to various religious shows. He likes how when you browse websites on the iPad, fewer windows pop-up. He also likes games — word games like Scrabble — but balks at playing Words with Friends on Facebook. “Yuck,” he says, clearly allergic to the idea of the social network.
Still, Terry finds he can bond with his grandchildren over the iPad. He doesn’t bother with updates and downloads — he’s outsourced the maintenance and upkeep to them. “All I need is the Web and my podcasts, really,” he says, though he recently used FaceTime to keep in touch with his vacationing son’s family in Florida. What about e-mail? Terry just shakes his head and bats his hand at the air. “I don’t want that nonsense in my life.” His contemporary savoir-faire only goes so far.
So what does he think about his friend’s iPhone? So far, Terry’s not impressed. “Wow. This screen is small,” he says, swiping through the homescreens. He frowns. “John, where are your apps?”
“My what?” John asks.
“Apps,” Terry says more loudly. “Like little programs you can get.” John just shrugs. Steven takes another long sip of his coffee, watching Terry tap away at the screen. “Whatever happened to buttons?” he asks. “What does everyone have against buttons, anyway?”
“This has a button,” Terry says, showing him the home button on the iPhone. But Steven just shakes his head. “I mean buttons with numbers. Like on a real phone.” He takes up the sports section of the paper — he’s clearly done with the iPhone. Eventually, Terry puts down the iPhone, squinting his eyes. “John, you are going to go blind with this phone.” John just laughs. “I’m already blind enough as it is!”
Terry has a point. The screen of most smartphones is too small for an older generation, and even seemingly simple interfaces can baffle them. That’s why Terry prefers his iPad over the iPhone. He says it feels more “natural” to interact with a larger display. “It’s not so different from an ATM screen,” he points out. “But doing this with an iPhone” — he pantomimes while hunched over and tapping away — “that’s a bit too dainty for my tastes.”
Some apps strip down the interface, so it’s easier to see and understand. Take Silverline: it replaces the little square icons with bigger buttons and typeface. John seems interested in making his iPhone more user-friendly, until he hears Silverline is based in Singapore. “It’ll never get here then,” he says. “Too much government.”
John would benefit from the growing push to make gadgets, like smartphones and tablets, more elderly-friendly. Some companies are even designing phones — like the Jitterbug — especially with older folks in mind. The problem? They’re usually not available on carriers, and seniors don’t even know they exist.
Smartphones are overly complicated, and while feature phones get the job done, they often lack the powerful functions that make smartphones so indispensable to everyday life. The iPhone is lauded for its simple interface, but they’re often priced too high for most budget-conscious seniors. Older models like the iPhone 4 and 4S, though, are more affordable to people like John — provided they have the eyesight, of course.
Meanwhile, John’s still adjusting to his iPhone, and he’s keeping it simple: he uses it to make and receive calls — that’s it. No texting, he says — that’s something he leaves to his wife. “She texts like she’s a teenager.”
John, curiously enough, does have e-mail — an old Yahoo account he uses once a week from a PC. He took a computer class at the city library to get him up to speed a few years ago. Would he take a class on the iPhone? He just shrugs. “I think my learning days are used up when it comes to this stuff,” he says. He seems happy with his newspaper and his coffee. “If anything important happens, someone will call me.”
Overall, they’re content to sit and observe as the world whirls around them. Phones come and go, but their lives are centered on their faith and families, and really, they’re only interested in gadgets and technology that connect them to these bedrocks. “We’ve seen it all,” Terry says. “Wars and things. After you see that, nothing fazes you much.”
Then a phone rings, and all three men reach in their pockets. It’s Steven’s phone — a simple Motorola he says he’s had for seven years. After chatting with his son for a few moments, he clicks it off and sets it back down on the table. “See, buttons,” he says. “Now that’s a real phone.” ♦