Silver Surfers

Repurposing a Retired Computer for Seniors In Your Family

My mum has recently started to learn how to use a computer. At the age of 82, this was quite a task for her to undertake, and as her assigned teacher and mentor, I am seeing some issues that I have not seen before.

Although a highly intelligent and mentally alert and active person, a computer is a totally foreign thing to her. She has never held a mouse, for instance. Things that are second nature for me, things that I’ve been doing for over 25 years, I now need to look at from an entirely different perspective.

Silver Surfers
Silver Surfers

Keeping this in mind, I took some interesting decisions in preparing a computer for her. I wanted the experience to be as simple as possible. This was especially so in the first few days of physical interaction with the computer. I felt that this was vital, in order that she enjoys positive experiences, and becomes encouraged to try different things as she gains confidence.

The first decision was PC or Mac. I think that a Mac would have been an ideal system for her, but I didn’t have an old Mac on hand to pass down to her. A bit of background here: I’m not one who buys pre-owned computers – the time spent looking for one is costly for me, one has to assess the workability and reliability of what’s on offer, and I need to consider how accurate the descriptions made might be. By the time it’s all said and done I simply find it quicker, easier, less frustrating and more expedient to just get something that’s new. At the other end of the scale, I’m not one who sells my older gear either.

Consequently, a new Mac would have entailed a minimum expenditure of around $1400 or so. Given that my mum might not even persevere with the computer over a prolonged period, that sort of expenditure was not an option, and my background dictated that a pre-owned Mac was also not on the cards.

But I did have an older laptop on hand. This was not too shabby a beast, an ASUS M5Ne I think, about five years old, with 80GB HDD, 500MB RAM, and originally running XP. It does suffer a hardware problem though in that the screen flickers and becomes unusable when there are large dark areas displayed. And the battery is dead.

Repairs to the screen are not, in my opinion, going to be an economic option. I suspect that with labour and parts costs, this would cost in the vicinity of $400 – $600, but I could buy a new netbook with similar performance for just a few dollars more. On the other hand, I could just buy a monitor for well under $200, throw a keyboard, mouse and webcam at it, and for minimal expense, have a very workable system that I suspected would satisfy the identified need.

With the hardware issue resolved, I needed to make the underlying OS as easy for her as possible. XP though was not going to cut it, and so I opted to install Windows 7. The default installation onto the five years old ASUS took well under an hour, and the system, despite its age, runs this new operating system without a hitch.

I needed to set it up so that it would be easier for her to use: lower resolution on the display card and larger mouse cursors, for instance.

She needed internet connectivity, but again, ease and convenience were paramount. A prepaid mobile broadband connection seemed the way to go here: no disruption to her home phone system (an important consideration when dealing with seniors), no contracts to commit to, and with an adequate provision of bandwidth and time for the bandwidth to live, this hopefully should become a set-and-forget exercise.

I decided upon an offering from Three, buying a USB stick broadband modem, along with their 12GB, 12 month prepaid deal. With this setup, I envisage just monitoring the account’s usage over time to ensure that the bandwidth purchased remains adequate, and adjusting if needed. This also comes with 12 months’ free anti-virus, so that’s another box ticked.

I also needed to setup email and Skype for her. I chose GMail for her email – easy and free, exactly what the doctor ordered. Skype setup was equally trouble free, and was then linked to the newly created Gmail account.

The initial setup and staging was all done at my home: OS installation, email and Skype setups. I live in a mobile phone reception black hole, and thus I deferred the broadband setup until¬† we were physically at my mum’s home, with the hardware up and running.

With the keep it simple concept in mind, I created desktop shortcuts for direct access to her GMail account and Skype, and both applications were setup for automatic login.

On the subject of automatic login, and again, with the concept of keeping everything simple in mind, I used the procedures described in this article to make her computer automatically log on to her account every time the systems starts. Again, keeping things simple.

With hardware in hand, we wandered over to mum’s home, unpacked what needed unpacking, connected what needed connecting,¬† installed what needed installing, and we were away.

We sat mum down at the keyboard, and started to teach her ho to use a mouse.

How to hold a mouse, even.

This needs to be comfortable, and while it seems second nature to most of us, I will stress that this a totally foreign environment to somebody who has not grown up with and been exposed to computers before.

This was to just be an initial familiarisation run, to get her a little familiar with some of the concepts of the WIMP interface. How to point. How to click.

How to doubleclick.

There were the first three challenges: the mouse pointer moved too quickly, the default cursor was perhaps not as easy to see as we would have liked, and while single clicking is a new concept, double-clicking is a whole new ballgame again.

The first two issues were very easy to deal with using the Windows 7 Control Panel. Just drill down to mouse, select the Pointers tab and then select an appropriate theme with a larger mouse cursor. Then select the Pointer Options tab and adjust the pointer speed, and the cursor issue is squashed.

Double clicking is a different issue though, and not quite as easy to deal with. As I’ve just mentioned, the whole concept of clicking is entirely new, and even with the adjustments available within the Mouse Control Panel Applet, this was still proving troublesome.

The alternative is single-clicking on desktop icons. The problem is that this is not an option for which enabling is immediately obvious. While the steps to enable this feature are relatively simple, it is worthy of an article on its own., and this article appears here.

At this stage my mum knows how to turn the computer on, and how to shut it down. She can open and close the applications that I think she will be using most of all, but she now needs to learn how to use the keyboard.

That’s the next challenge.

<p><a href=”″>Image: Ambro /</a></p>