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Seniors: Tips for Using Computers

Baby-boomers and seniors constitute the single largest group of computer users today, though poor posture, inadequate lighting, and other ergonomic and environmental issues can be particularly troublesome for older computer users. If you’re of similar vintage, here are a few computer tips beginner and experienced users can use to make themselves comfortable and keep their computing and Internet experiences positive and productive.

Correct Keyboard Positioning

One of the easier senior citizen computer assistance tips is to have the computer keyboard positioned so that your hands can type while in a neutral, flat posture. The easiest way to achieve this is to place your keyboard on a height-adjustable, negative slope (meaning away from you) keyboard tray that attaches to the underside of a desk or a table. Additional senior citizen computer assistance can be found in Healthy Computing’s Keyboard Tray Buyer’s Guide.

Another way of achieving correct hand position is to place the keyboard on a surface that is approximately elbow high (when seated) and to type with your hands straight rather than angled up or down at the wrists. Without wrist support, this approach will work for short periods of time, but as your forearms fatigue, wrists tend to slump to the surface which causes the hands to become angled upwards on the keys. Prolonged keyboard use in this position can lead to aching wrists.

Another computer tip for laptop users is to place the machine on your lap while sitting back in a chair, typing with your hands in a neutral position on the keyboard. Even better, the Laptop Desk provides a stable surface for laptop computers. (I wouldn’t travel without one.) Regardless of the platform, the key is having your forearms and wrists supported, so your fingers extend out, onto the keyboard. Ideally positioned, you should not feel any strain on your back, neck, arms, forearms or wrists.

If you have restricted mobility in either hand, you might want to consider purchasing a one-handed keyboard. You can also find one-handed keyboards at

Mouse Positioning

Your mouse should be positioned on a stable surface that is as close to your body as is naturally comfortable, approximately elbow high, when seated. If you purchase a keyboard tray, make sure that it can also accommodate your mouse. By keeping your mouse close to your body, you’ll avoid having to reach forward, bend or twist to reach and use it. Awkward arm and body positions can cause neck, shoulder, elbow, and wrist discomfort.

Seniors or other individuals afflicted with hand tremors will benefit by using an ergonomic trackball. A trackball is generally less sensitive to erratic hand movements than a traditional mouse. Ergo Works sells ergonomic computer products for seniors and individuals with disabilities. Be sure to visit MAB Assistive Technologies, as well.

Monitor Positioning

If you sit back in your chair and hold your arms out in front of you, with your hands outstretched, your fingers should just about touch the center of the computer screen. In this position, the monitor should be centered at the correct height, and at the correct distance from your eyes. Properly positioned, you should be able to look straight ahead at the monitor without tilting your head back or looking down, both of which can result in strain on your neck and back. LCD (flat-panel) monitors are generally easier on the eyes than older CRT monitors.

Place your computer screen in a location that does not face or back up to an unshaded window, unless you can lower the blinds or draw a curtain to reduce the glare from the window.

If you cannot comfortably read your screen when it is approximately an arm’s length away, you might need to increase the font size or use whatever magnification capabilities exist within a given program. Beginner and experienced Windows XP users find it helpful to go to All Programs > Accessories > Accessibility > Magnifier. Read Microsoft’s Turn On and Use Magnifer article for additional information. Lowering screen resolution will also cause objects to appear larger on screen.

WebEyes is an application for senior citizen computer assistance that works well with Internet Explorer and can greatly increase the size of on-screen fonts while viewing Web sites.

Document Positioning

When working with documents, make sure they are as close to your computer screen as possible. Use a document holder that it is height adjustable, place it between your keyboard and the computer screen, or adjacent to one side of the screen. Proper positioning of a document holder depends on the task being performed and the type of document being used, but appropriate placement can reduce or eliminate risk factors such as awkward head and neck postures, fatigue, headaches, and eye strain.

Avoid placing documents on a flat surface in front of the monitor if you’re planning to refer to them frequently while using the computer. See the Document Holders Buyer’s Guide for additional senior citizen computer assistance.

Room Lighting

Lighting for all computer users, particularly senior computer users, should be relatively dim so you can see the computer screen without any glare. You will probably need to use a supplemental task light or table lamp to illuminate documents so that you can read them without straining your eyes. You may have to experiment with various lighting arrangements to determine what is most comfortable for you. I have florescent lighting in my office, but I use soft, natural-light bulbs to avoid any harsh white glare.

Computer Chair

It goes without saying that you’ll need a chair that provides comfortable seating for long periods of time. Make sure that your chair allows enough room for your legs to fit under the keyboard tray or desk. If the chair has arms, they should not interfere with your ability to sit comfortably or get close to your desk or keyboard.

Your chair should have some curvature or support at the lower back level so that you can sit back and feel fully supported by the chair. If your chair does not have good back support, consider using some type of back cushion or rolled-up towel to support your lower back. If your chair seat does not feel comfortable after you have been sitting for awhile, consider some additional senior citizen computer assistance support by purchasing a gel seat cushion or a similar type of cushion.

For additional information on senior citizen computer assistance products, read How to Choose an Ergonomic Chair by Cornell University’s Ergonomic Web.

Foot Support

While working at the computer, your feet should be positioned firmly on the floor or on some other support surface, such as a footstool. Never work at the computer with your feet dangling.

Rest Breaks

It’s very easy to lose track of time when reading and writing email or surfing the Web. Get in the habit of taking a one- to two-minute break every 30 minutes. During these breaks, stand up, walk around, and look out the window to rest your eyes. I use an inexpensive oven timer that I set for 30 minutes, then place it across the room. Every 30 minutes, the alarm will sound and I’ll have to get up and walk across the room to turn it off. It’s simple, it’s frequently annoying, but it works like a charm.

Wishing you happy and healthy computing!

Mr. M.

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