Illustration by Erin Taj

The Unsung Tech Savvy of Grandmothers

‘So easy your grandma could do it’? Mine are as digitally literate as I am

A couple of years ago I received a text message from my 76-year-old grandma. It began with a string of emojis: happy face, hearts, dancing gypsy, confetti and beer glasses clinking together. It followed with “Hi Andrew, I hope you are good. I want to ask you if you have time on Friday evening to come to our house for dinner. Your dad is coming too.”

Her sweet, grammatically near-perfect text message was an early sign of my grandmother’s budding romance with technology. I later found out that she’d also become a compulsive Candy Crusher and a serial Skyper and had ordered a custom computer keyboard from Amazon that has the letters of the Persian alphabet overlaid on a regular QWERTY to circumvent her limited English lexicon.

At 78, my other grandma has substituted her commitment to All My Children with the k-hole that is her iPad. She’s hypnotized by an endless slew of birthday wishes, viral video clips and engages in millennial-style slacktivism, liking and sharing posts about activists and aid workers in Iran to fulfill her need to feel a part of the change. But it wasn’t until November’s terror attacks in Paris, when she changed her profile picture to express her solidarity with the people of France, that I realized just how comprehensive her tech abilities had become.

Months later, she set herself up with an Apple TV (something I still struggle with), created a digital photo album on a bluetooth picture frame and began regularly searching YouTube for the most recent episodes of her favorite Turkish TV show, streaming it onto her Samsung smart TV she recently purchased from Costco, “at a price so good, she just had to buy it.”

Admittedly, that grandmother used computers as an operations manager, prior to her retirement. But my other grandma is self-taught and her voraciousness for content illegally downloaded from the Turkish equivalents of Popcorn Time will likely end with a knock on the door from the FBI and a legacy as the Dread Pirate Roberts of the AARP-eligible Persian community.

It’s just too bad I can’t say the same about either one of my grandpas. “I just don’t see the point,” my grandpa says when I ask him about why he’s never tried to learn how to familiarize himself with the internet. “It’s not for me.”

In fact, their total lack of interest borders on indignation with any form of technology other than a TV remote. To some degree, I understand why my grandfathers have opted for the Luddite life. They’re proud men whose livelihoods were stripped away when they moved to America just before the onset of the Islamic Revolution. In more ways than one they’ve created walls around themselves to preserve a certain nostalgia they associate with the past.

But still, they’re far from the only older dudes to adopt a similar attitude. Though a 2014 Pew Research Report found that men over the age of 65 use the internet, tablets and smartphones at a higher percentage than similarly aged women (apparently retirement doesn’t include walking away from internet porn), the same study found that 65 percent of women over 65 use social networking sites versus 39 percent of men in that group. And elderly women seem more eager to learn. According to Luis Gomez, who has taught technology classes at a prominent senior citizen community in Los Angeles for the past 10 years, “65–70 percent of my students are females. And 95 percent of the senior citizens are non-English-speaking or consider English their second language.”

Gomez notes that some of the male students who come from an engineering background or other jobs that required computer skills are just as eager to learn. But he says that for most of his female students, “technology and computers are a whole new world, so they’re much more willing to explore.” When I tell him of my of grandfathers’ irritation with computers, he agrees that “on several occasions I’ve seen women who are more willing to try and fail than the men,” including within two different couples he’s worked with. “The two men were really struggling and the women were not.”

For as long as I’ve known my grandfathers, it’s safe to say they haven’t been pining to learn or try new things. For them, stubbornness felt like a last gasp of machismo. It’s part of why they never put much effort to learning how to speak English and why the suggestion of sushi for dinner instead of Ghorme sabze was considered borderline blasphemous.

Recently, I had my grandparents over for dinner. I prepared a traditional Persian stew based on a set of instructions my grandma had emailed me. When they arrived, my grandpa slowly inched his way to the dining table, sat down and asked me when dinner would be ready. His expression enriched with snippets of nostalgia. My grandma trailed behind him, examining the décor and tracing the corners of the room. I was sure she was going to make a comment about the dust on the countertops or the clutter on the shelves. But as I began to explain my mild untidiness, she looked at me and grinned. “I don’t care about that. Just tell me, where’s your wireless router? I need the password to connect to the Wi-Fi.”