Grandma’s on Facebook, but Would It Kill You to Call Her?

Saturday, October 25, 2014
There were many reactions Verizon Wireless salesman Joseph Ramireza expected to hear when he introduced an iPhone to his oldest client this year. It would have been perfectly normal for the elderly Minnesota man to show confusion, maybe curiosity, possibly indifference. Instead, the 85-year-old said this:

“Wow, I have got to show this to my mom!”

“Well, how old is she?”


A few weeks later, many more people learned about the then-113-year-old when a TV station in Plainview, Minn., aired a story about her that went viral. It said that the woman, Anna Stoehr, tried to sign up for a Facebook account on her iPad mini (the regular iPad was too heavy) and she had to lie about her age because Facebook’s upper age limit wouldn’t recognize her birth year of 1900.

A few days before Stoehr’s 114th birthday, Ramireza tried sending a few emails to Facebook’s customer service. But he said he kept receiving automated responses. In what he says is Stoehr’s regular sass, she recommended that he send the company an actual letter.

“You tell them,” she said, “I’m still here.”

Before Stoehr was making headlines, Ramireza says, she was just a lady who wanted to try something new and connect with family members she doesn’t get to see. It’s something that people her age — well not her age, but people close to her age — are doing all the time.

Grandmas, it seems, have taken to Facebook. And although the site is phasing out of popularity among young people, seniors are fully embracing it. Since 2000, the number of adults 65 and older who use the Internet has increased from 14 percent to 59 percent. And in that group, nearly half use a social networking site such as Facebook.

“As you get older, you become socially isolated, especially when your family lives far away. So an opportunity to get online and see what their grandkids are up to this weekend? That really appeals to them” says Saffron Cassaday, the director of Cyber Seniors, a 2014 documentary about teenagers teaching residents of retirement homes to use the Internet.

In a way, it’s easy to see how Facebook could have been made to please grandparents. It gives them a chance to be involved in their family members’ lives, even from afar. That’s why retirement centers and senior-supportive charities across the country have been pushing social media use. It’s like the new bingo night.

“The Facebook class is so popular we had to make it a regular part of the schedule,” says Natalie Billings, who teaches computer courses for seniors at Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Brighton, Mass. Billings says the computer lab can sometimes devolve into a “look at my grandchild” competition, but that is needed socialization, especially for residents older than 90.

Of course, it’s not always easy for grandparents to catch on to how Facebook works. One recent hiccup, chronicled hilariously on a dedicated Tumblr: an autocomplete error in which Facebook turns g-r-a-n-d-m . . . into tagging hip-hop artist Grandmaster Flash. (e.g.: Happy Birthday Samantha, hope Lucy makes you a cake as nice as the one you did for her, no longer a teenager Sam, all grown up Love Grandmaster Flash)

Gaps in their Web savvy aside, grandparents have always been the ones we turn to for wisdom. So in sticking with tradition, let’s have the grandmaster flashes — ahem, grandmas — do what they do best: Offer life lessons, Facebook style.

∎ Twenty minutes at a time.

Ramireza had to drive more than two hours to see Stoehr when they met for her technology lessons, so he would usually want to stay at the retirement home for at least three hours. Stoehr often fell asleep during her lessons. To help her, he and Stoehr started using Facebook in 20-minute spurts and then took a break.

∎ Why don’t you go read a book?

Florence Detlor, 103, was invited to Facebook headquarters by Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in 2012 for being the site’s oldest registered user at the time. Detlor says she likes Facebook because it is a “social animal!” for people to get together and “share ideas through leaving notices.” The Californian’s trip to the headquarters was “fine,” but these days, she says she doesn’t have a lot of time for Facebook. She’s busy reading The New Yorker and books on the war in Iraq.

∎ Please restrain yourself.

Mary Sturkey, a Facebook grandma from Detroit, does not understand why people feel the need to post so often about the minutiae of their lives. “It’s like, look at me! Look what I have done! And frankly it’s just not interesting,” Sturkey says. The former elementary school principal, who says she is “somewhere in the middle 70s,” enjoys online shopping and playing “Plants vs. Zombies.” But don’t get her started on selfies.

“It amazes me,” she says. “Not any friends I know, but the people like the Kardashians? Gag, how they post their almost naked bodies, And to me, that’s kind of disgusting, really.”

∎ Do you really need to connect with people you don’t know?

Once the story about Stoehr went viral, she received 1,830 friend requests in about 24 hours. Unimpressed, Stoehr is ignoring them.

∎ You’re never too old to learn something new.

According to the Gerontology Research Group, Stoehr, at 114, is the world’s 12th-oldest person. At Older Adults Technology Services, a New York nonprofit group, seniors are learning about Skype and Twitter and are even using Facebook to start businesses.

∎ Remember that your non-digital bonds came first.

Billings, the retirement-home computer teacher, says: “One of the most difficult things for (seniors) to understand when they first sign up is why they aren’t friends with their grandchildren. They say, ‘How can she not be my friend? She is my granddaughter!’ ”

∎ And call your grandma.

Facebook grandma Lillie Heffley, 83, lives in Fort Wayne, Ind. She has no profile picture, but she does have 10 children and stepchildren who have given her 18 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Some of those great-grandchildren she has seen only in the photos she finds when she checks Facebook twice a day: newborns in the hospital, taking their first steps, going on vacations.

Heffley is old enough to have grown up without a phone. She has a flip phone now, but she knows her family is “all busy with work or school, so we just don’t get together,” she says. “They don’t seem to have time to call. So I enjoy the Facebook connection.

“But when they do call, they ask me how I am doing, and I ask them how they are doing and what they are doing. And that . . . is really quite nice.”

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