I'm the guy that EVERYONE calls when they have a computer problem. My computer won't do "this." My computer won't STOP doing "that." How can I make it do "the other thing?"

I'm also the guy that everyone calls when they want to set up a new computer, hand down an old computer to someone else, or rebuild a computer from scratch. I've done this more than once, not only for my parents but for grandparents, aunts, uncles, and in-laws. I've learned some very interesting lessons over the years, especially when trying to set up computers for some of the older folks in my life, and I'm happy to share them with you.

Here's the best way to get a senior citizen near you into the modern computing world.

Buy the right kind of computer hardware

When seniors want to buy computers they're nearly always unsure of what to get, and they usually always think they have to make a huge change from what they're used to. It might fall to you to help them pick the right hardware. This could be a traditional desktop or laptop or it could be a tablet. Before considering any computer purchase, you'll need to assess the following options: budget, computer literacy level, and available space.

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  • Tablet - Tablets are best for non-computing users without a dedicated computing space, for anyone who doesn't want to spend a lot for a computer, or for anyone with specific, defined, repeatable tasks to complete. Mobile operating systems are relatively easy to use and with the proper accessories, the price of entry and ease of use make a tablet a great choice for an older computing user.
  • Laptop - Laptops can be considered desktop computer replacements. The only difference between the two can often be traced to two main things – dedicated, non-upgradable hardware and portability. As laptops run a desktop OS, their users are likely very familiar with that computing experience. They're a great choice for a more experienced user who isn't looking to change how they work.
  • Desktop - Desktop computers can be very powerful and often contain upgradable components. While they can be used by users of all literacy levels, you'll often find them in dedicated, stationary spaces. Like laptops, desktop computers are great for users of all experience levels who don't want to change the way they work.

Pick the right operating system

If your senior doesn't know what they want, you should at least try to introduce them to a tablet. If they also own a smartphone, show them one with the same mobile OS. The familiarity will make the new computing device more appealing, and make the change a bit easier for them to envision. Remember, tablet – or mobile device computing – is likely a foreign concept to older folks who may not have embraced it as quickly or as easily as you or someone younger.

If your senior wants a desktop or a laptop, try to pick a brand they're familiar with and have used before. If they've had a Mac at work or at home before, stick with that. If they're more comfortable with a Windows machine, keep them there.

Install the software they'll need (not necessarily what they want)

Depending on the hardware that you've recommended, giving your computing senior what they need instead of what they think they want can be a blessing in disguise. Most folks want to do just a few things – read email, surf the web, and take and share pictures. Some folks also play games. The idea, again, is to keep things simple and familiar.

  • Browser – This is not always the default browser for the OS you use. If your senior also has a smartphone, make certain that the browser you install and set up for them is available on their phone. Similarity and familiarity will make adoption easy. It will also help when synching bookmarks and website credentials.
  • Photos – Pick something that's free, is easy to use, and has an auto-sync component that works with their smartphone. The app should have simple and easy to use editing tools, allowing them to make professional style edits without a lot of difficulties. They should also easily allow them to share photos with social networking sites and with nearby friends.
  • eMail – Seniors should use the same tool on a computer or tablet as they do on their smartphone. That may be Apple Mail, Gmail, or Outlook on (nearly) any device you choose. Sticking with what is familiar is always the best way to go.
  • Games – Depending on their computing device of choice and the games they are interested in, they may use a dedicated app, or they may be able to play the game in a browser. Make certain they can sync progress and scores on all computing devices.
  • Internet Security Software – Everybody needs something that's going to help protect them from ransomware, viruses and other malware. Install one that won't slow down their computer/device while providing suitable protection. The last thing a computing senior needs to worry about is someone stealing their retirement savings. Internet security software can help provide protection when you aren't around to tell them not to click a particular link.
  • Accessibility Settings – If your senior is hard of hearing, has vision issues, or other challenges, setting up their computer with the right accessibility settings – larger font sizes, high contrast themes and color schemes, or audio and text to speech support – can go a long way to making the experience a positive one. Make certain you understand how all of this works and have it prepped and configured for them before you turn the machine over.

Set everything up and show them what to do

The senior computer users I've set up machines for have been familiar with the technology, but couldn't be called power users. They've been smartphone users, but not mobile warriors. In the end, I've found that its best to set everything up in advance before delivering the computer or computing device to them. Whatever you give them, the solution should be as turnkey as possible, meaning all they should need to do is turn the device on.

Create a Cheat Sheet

As part of their turnkey solution, I've found that seniors really appreciate a hard copy set of written instructions. This cheat sheet includes not only passwords for all the important apps and sites they use (like email) but simple instructions on the more difficult tasks they wish to complete. This is usually the best and easiest way to help them remember important information and instructions. Password managers and other tools may be more secure but aren't always easy for them to use.

Examples here include but aren't limited to

  • How to Sign In – If the device is password protected, they'll need to know how to get past the first gate so they can get their groove on.
  • Connecting and Synching their Smartphone – This is more for laptop and desktop users, as tablet users won't do this
  • Backing up their computing Device – This can be a tablet, laptop or desktop phone. If this is an iPad, provide them with instructions for backing up their device to iCloud. If this a Mac, provide instructions for backing up their Mac, iMac or Mac mini with Time Machine. If this is a Windows 10 laptop or desktop, provide instructions for backing up their Windows PC.
  • How to Send and Receive eMail – Make certain this is a turnkey solution for them with the email account already synchronized to their computer. Make certain they know how to send an email – with and without attachments (meaning pictures of their kids and grandkids). Make certain they understand any limits imposed by their email provider when it comes to the amount of bandwidth they have to burn or attachment size, etc.
  • How to Browse their Favorite Web Sites – If they're moving from a different computer, import all of their bookmarks or Favorites for them. Show them the browser and where to find everything
  • Write Down all their Passwords – This isn't the most secure way to do this, but it's probably the easiest way for an inexperienced computing user. However, if they feel they can work with a password manager, there are a number of different apps out there for both Mac and Windows.

Demo the Hardware

Some of this information is likely going to need to appear on your Cheat Sheet. When you deliver the PC, show them everything. Examples here will include, but won't be limited to the following:

  • The On/ Off Button – They should know how to turn the device or computer on and off.
  • The Power Supply – If your senior is using a tablet or a laptop, you should show them the power supply and how to charge and change the battery (if it's removable, and if they have more than one).
  • Specialized Hardware – If there is a special mouse, touchpad, fingerprint reader, TrueDepth camera, detachable keyboard, pen or stylus, etc., you'll need to review these components with them and show them how they are used. Go slow. Specialized gadgets may be new to some less experienced users. Make sure they are comfortable with how the fancy hardware works before moving on to the software you installed for them.

Show them the Software

Most of this information is likely going to need to appear on your Cheat Sheet. After they are familiar with the hardware, review all of the software. You'll probably have covered the browser and email client they're going to use already, so you can use this time to review apps that do these things:

  • How to Watch Videos – Are they going to use Quick Time, iTunes or some other application to stream or watch downloaded movies on their device? Show them how to find the video they want to watch, and how to get things started. This may also include specialized websites like YouTube, Netflix, or Amazon Prime.
  • How to Listen to Music – If they have MP3s or other audio files that you've ripped for them or transferred to their computing device, show them how to play the music that will soothe their stressful days away. This may include music from iTunes or other streaming services like Apple Music, Pandora, iHeart Radio, or Spotify.
  • How to View and Edit Photos – This may include transferring pictures from their digital camera, smartphone, or other sources. This will also likely include the ability to retouch some of their photos at least a little bit. You'll need to spend some time here, as this will likely be one they will spend a lot of time with, especially if they're a shutterbug.

You're going to spend a lot of time in this section; so depending on when you start and the number of questions they have, you may need to split it up into more than one session. Make certain you don't tire them out. If they're too tired to hear what you have to say, you're just going to get support calls later on.


Setting up a computer for a senior citizen is all about simplification. The easier you can make the process for them, the more they will enjoy things. In the end, the seniors that have asked me to set up computers for them have wanted to chat with friends and family through social networking, show off pictures of their grandkids, send and receive email, and maybe play a few games. Keeping things simple and familiar will make their computing experience more enjoyable, and will ultimately keep the support calls to a minimum.

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