Binge-watching Netflix, Instagramming cute dog pics… Meet the tech-savvy oldies who are more on (WhatsApp) message than their grandkids.
Sunday morning, not yet 10am – and already you seem to have accrued 26 unread messages on WhatsApp. Since your peers are either still asleep or getting ready to go to church to worship their kids into the local C of E school, this can only mean one thing: your mother is up and she has something to tell you. You glance anxiously at your phone.
‘Coo-ee!’ says the first message. ‘Only me!’ says the second. ‘Just binge-watched the first three episodes!’ says the third, accompanied by rainbow-coloured heart emojis. ‘Emma Stone is marvellous,’ says the fourth, accompanied by the dancing lady emoji. ‘Not so keen on Jonah Hill,’ says the fifth (devil emoji).
And so it goes on: a blow-by-blow commentary on buzzy new Netflix show Maniac, signed off with a snap of her dinner – M&S fish and chips, since you ask – and a breezy ‘luv n hugs, Mum’.
It was my friend Ruth who introduced me to the concept of Teen Nan, aka those 60-, 70- and even 80-something women who use tech with the alacrity of teenagers. Ruth’s mother makes playlists on Spotify, is a keen user of Skype and regularly wakes her up with a sunrise pic after her Sunday-morning yoga class. Like adolescents, Teen Nans have time on their hands and aren’t Seniormomentafraid to fill it with Netflix binges, Facebook posts (typed on the sofa from their iPads), Instagram stories (often featuring their dog) and streams of consciousness on WhatsApp, accompanied by obscure emojis nobody under 40 seems to use.
For Teen Nan, no miracle is greater than the ability to pause live TV and nip off to the loo: she’s got Sky and she knows how to use it. She also loves nothing better than an online Zara splurge: turmeric latte on one side, debit card on the other, she shops for the latest style of trainer with a zeal that would shame Mary Berry. Cannily, she always spends more than £50 because it means free delivery. There are no flies on Teen Nan.
Dionne Westgate, 68, is typical. ‘The best thing is when she answers calls with her Apple Watch,’ says her 34-year-old daughter Bren. ‘My husband likes to shout, “Sierra 654 receiving.” She also holds the iPhone to her ear when FaceTiming, as in that scene from Bridget Jones’s Baby. She always has 900 unread WhatsApps on her phone – she can’t keep up with her own popularity. It’s the same with Facebook Messenger. She can take a while to get a handle on a new phone or laptop but she’s pretty determined and cracks it in the end. Well, after a few phone calls to the IT helpdesk, otherwise known as me or my sister.’
Being fully tooled-up with an Apple Watch, iPhone and iPad allows Dionne to keep fully abreast of the development of her one-year-old grandson Charlie, even though they live 300 miles apart. ‘I can’t imagine not being able to send photos of him, and have her respond to them in real time,’ says Bren. ‘When Charlie was a baby, and I needed advice, it was so nice to know she was at the end of a text, especially when I didn’t have the time or energy for a phone call.
Also embracing the Teen Nan lifestyle is Hazel Feeney, 76. ‘I love technology and how it keeps me connected to my grandkids around the world. I FaceTime with my grandson in Canada and my granddaughter in Australia.’ A retired magistrate who still works for her family’s food business, Hazel utilises technology with a canniness that would put someone half her age to shame. ‘WhatsApp is particularly useful as it’s free. I have a health app that logs my daily walking levels and motivates me to be active. It also stores my emergency contacts in my iPhone.’
Hazel appreciates the extra dimension that phone apps add to her hobbies, particularly gardening. ‘A new app I love is PlantSnap: it’s amazing! I take a photograph of a flower or plant I’m not familiar with and PlantSnap identifies it,’ she says. ‘I use my iPad a tremendous amount at home, especially for banking.’
No one lucky enough to be related to a Teen Nan will be surprised to learn that nearly half of online baby-boomers aged 65 to 74 now have a social media profile, as do 41 per cent of over-75s. And if they’re anything like 70-year-old Lily Dorrit, they’ll be harnessing social media for some greater good rather than just messing around with the latest bunny filter.
Lily, a director of Dearne Community Housing, set up three Facebook groups so that her local community in Goldthorpe, a former mining town in South Yorkshire, could stay in touch more easily. This is of particular value given how many local amenities have closed down. The groups have 3,000 members. ‘I get a lovely feeling when I read about two old schoolfriends meeting up,’ she says. She also uses the groups to help fundraise for local cancer charities, and has raised more than £45,000 over the past four years.
While her grandson sometimes helps her out with tech queries, Lily is largely self-sufficient. ‘A lot of seniors haven’t a clue about computers or don’t know how to use a mobile,’ she says, ‘but you have to keep up, otherwise you will be left behind.’
Some of the keener Teen Nans make the generation sandwiched in the middle – their children – feel as though they’re the ones being left behind. According to my friend Ruth, it’s a strange feeling when your mother offers you emoji lessons, or encourages her grandchildren to share confidences with them via WhatsApp from which their parents are exempt. A busy lawyer, Ruth has never felt the need, nor had the time, to download WhatsApp – she prefers texting. As for Netflix binges, forget it: she struggles to stay awake for the ten o’clock news. Personally, though, I have no sympathy when I hear friends whinge about the dizzying hyper-connectedness of their mothers. I’d rather my own used her mobile at the dinner table than look murderous whenever I take out mine.
When it comes to tech, my 84-year-old mum is a refusenik. She hates mobile phones with a passion (‘What are you doing on it?’ she asks, every time I’m on my iPhone), and thinks ‘the WWW’ (as she calls the internet) is a conspiracy designed to make everyone else’s life easier than hers (she knows bills are cheaper if you sign up to a direct debit online but still refuses point blank to get broadband).
I wish I could WhatsApp photos of my daughters’ Halloween costumes to her and check up on how her doctor’s appointment went via a quick text. Yet when I offer to set her up with a mobile, she resists. I know it’s because she worries she won’t know how to use it, so should I persist or capitulate to her reluctance? So far it’s been the latter – but not without regret. Because what technology offers all of us is freedom – to stay in contact on the go, order groceries wherever we are and navigate any neighbourhood we happen to find ourselves in.
‘My iPhone has liberated me,’ says Hazel. ‘The same goes for Netflix – it gives me freedom to watch what I want whenever I want.’ No tech should have an age limit, because freedom is priceless at any age. So here’s to Teen Nans – and long may they WhatsApp us with all the details.
Trad Nan v Teen Nan
Trad Nan: Has her cup of tea ready on the dot of 9pm for the traditional Sunday-night BBC One bodice-ripper.
Teen Nan: Has her cup of tea whenever she fancies it, thanks to iPlayer’s ability to pause the above. What the hell – maybe she’ll even catch it tomorrow night.
Trad Nan: Bemoans the queues at the supermarket and how heavy her bags are to carry.
Teen Nan: Buys her food online and has it delivered by Serge from Ocado with whom she flirts shamelessly.
Trad Nan: Sends a thank-you card after she has been to stay.
Teen Nan: Sends you a short, cheery, emoji-strewn text on the way home on the train: THX FOR A FAB STAY LUV U XXXXX.
Trad Nan: Loves her bingo night on a Wednesday.
Teen Nan: Loves her Zumba class, which she books through its Facebook group. She and the girls are planning a trip to New York soon.
Report by Laura Craik