4 tips for getting an older relative online with Linux

Linux and open source software are uniquely suited for learning how to use a computer.
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and old computer and a new computer, representing migration to new software or hardware


According to a study by the Pew Research Center, some members of older generations have a hard time learning computers because they were born at the wrong time to learn about computers in school or the workplace. It's a purely demographic phenomenon that tends to mostly affect older people. However, I firmly believe that these people can stay connected and can learn about the benefits of modern technology. The free software community is uniquely placed in ideology, values, and distribution to fill that need. We're a community dedicated to honest product development, longevity, and tools that do what you need and none of what you don't. Those ideologies used to define our world, but it's only in the computer era that they've been openly challenged.

So, I started a GNU/Linux tech support and system builder company that focuses on enabling the elderly and promoting open source adoption. We're sharing our teaching methods and techniques to help others create a more connected society so everyone can take full advantage of our wonderfully connected world.

4 tips for getting your family online with GNU/Linux

Whether you're trying to help your mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, or older neighbor or friend, the following tips will help you get them comfortable working with GNU/Linux.

1. Choose a Linux distro

One of the first and biggest questions you'll face is helping your family member decide which Linux distribution to use. Distributions vary wildly in their user-friendliness, ease of use, stability, customization, extensibility, and so on. You may have an idea of what to use, but here are things to consider before you choose:

  • Do I know how to fix it if it breaks?
  • How hard is it to break without root privileges?
  • Is it going to fit their needs?
  • Does it receive regular security updates?

I would shy away from a rolling-release distribution such as Arch, openSUSE Tumbleweed, or Gentoo, which can change and break without warning if you aren't careful. You'll probably have fewer headaches selecting a distribution such as Debian Stable, Fedora Workstation, or openSUSE Leap. In our business, we use Ubuntu LTS. Ultimately the decision is up to you. You know your skills and toolbelt better than anyone else, and it's you who will be keeping it up to date and secure.

2. Keep their hands on the controls

Learning how to use a computer is exactly like learning a language. It's a strange, inhuman form of interaction we usually learn while we're young and growing up. But there must be a lot of repetition to form the right habits and understanding. The easiest way to form those habits is with guided usage with the learner's hands on the controls the whole time. Older learners need to recognize it's not a jet plane or a tank, where pressing the wrong button is deadly. It's just a computer.

In our company, we want our customers to be completely self-sufficient. We want them to know how to stay safe online and really use their computer to its full extent. As a result, our teaching style looks a little different from what you'd see in a regular, large corporation's customer care or tech support department.

We can sum up our teaching policy in this short Python script:

def support(onsite, broken):
    if broken==False:
        print("Never take away the mouse or keyboard.")
    elif broken==True:
        print("Fix it in the command line quickly.")
        print("You shouldn’t end up here, but it's correct syntax.")

3. Take notes

Have your learner take notes while you're teaching them about the computer. Taking notes has been proven to be one of the most effective memory-retention tricks for gaining new skills. It also serves another purpose: It gives the learner a resource to turn to when you aren't there and allows them to take a break from listening and focus on truly understanding.

4. Have patience

I think a lack of patience is the second-biggest factor (right behind demographics) that has prevented older people from learning to use a computer. The next time your loved one asks for help with her computer, ask yourself: "Do I not want to help because they can't learn? Or because I don't have the time to help them?" The second excuse seems to be the one I hear the most. Make sure you plan enough time to be patient with them. There's nothing more permanent than a temporary solution (such as doing everything for them).

Wrapping up

If you combine these techniques to form habits, leave them with self-created teaching resources, and add a healthy portion of patience, you'll get your family members up and running with Linux in no time. The wonders of being online and knowing how to use a computer shouldn't be restricted to those lucky enough to grow up at a time where the computer is second nature. That's not to say it won't be difficult at times, but it's absolutely worth it.

User profile image.
Founder of the Riesling Computer Company and a long-time Blender, Linux, Open-source fan and user. I work to help make sure our elderly members of society are welcomed with open arms to the wonderful new technologies constantly being created.


Great article. I'm teaching a short course this summer at a youth camp and my focus is going to be on using Linux and open source software to help senior citizens in your community. You've provided a good primer for that effort.

Some times it is correct to say no to help. My mom often runs to me to do the same things I've shown her many times and that I know she knows. Her health is good, it's not that, but when it comes to technology she got low self confidence. What happens when I say yes is that she don't get any training and her self confidence stays low. I sometimes therefore say no even when she claims to have tried everything already, after some discussion she then goes back trying and usually 5 minutes later she returns happy because she solved the puzzle without me! I then cheer and the next time she comes running with something she knows already, I remind her that she knows more than she believes and uses this as a example. Teaching eldery and kids are not much difference. Have patience and always be positive yes, but don't be afraid to say no when you know it's to the best for your "students".

I think this a dilemma is one that a lot of teachers will face, especially with such a wide knowledge gap. It seems like your Mom has probably had some bad experiences with technology in the past, but I'm glad she has someone like you to help her overcome her lack of self confidence and gain some of that confidence for herself.

One thing I talked a bit about in a recent conference is having the right kind of patience. Rather than spending five minutes doing something for who you're supporting: Spend twenty minutes (or however long) teaching them how to do what you do, and think through the problem. I think you've got a great encouraging dynamic figure out with your Mom. Thanks for sharing your story!

In reply to by Mikkel (not verified)

To this end, I have configured something I call Old Farts Linux on Lubuntu. See a screenshot at https://i.imgur.com/lpfvwtH.png . All the settings are hidden, and the panel locked. Just basically set up for browsing and email with shortcuts to pinterst, facebook ,youtube, weather, news and some games. There is a panic button and a confused button also.

There are (at least) two errors in your python, concerning indentation...

The harder part is getting the younger relatives off of Windows.

But then I'm in my early 60's and have been a computing professional since the mid 70's and a UNIX (then Linux) user since the early 90's. There were main frames and mini computers before I got my first taste of UNIX.

Your article would color me, and so many others, as the older relative that's computer illiterate. But that isn't surprising, I gave up looking for work since everyone assumes someone my age, despite 40+ years of experience, can't possibly work with computers today.

My problem is that I actually know how computers function at the bit level... I don't just point and click until something works. Well that and I don't have any patience with rebranding and poor implementation of ideas we threw out decades ago, nor the abandoning of older good ideas for something new and shiny and usually worthless (in the long run).

Thanks for your input. I hope my article isn't encouraging or promoting the stereotype that older people can't use computers, in fact I'm trying to say the opposite:

"According to a study by the Pew Research Center, some members of older generations have a hard time learning computers because they were born at the wrong time to learn about computers in school or the workplace."

Based on this research and your credentials, you aren't a part of who I'm discussing giving support to. The skills involved in using a computer are completely independent of old age, and really only have to do with experience and exposure (two things I wouldn't doubt in yourself). You were exposed to computers back in the early days when our economical and technological landscape looked very different.

I have older parents too, and my Father is a very experienced Unix and Linux user who has had difficulties proving his experience in the technology companies he's worked with. It's a form of discrimination I'd love to get rid of. First because I love my parents and hate that they face discrimination. Second, I know someday I'll be an old technologist and I don't want to face that discrimination myself.

I touch on a few more of the complexities of this idea and where I derived these teaching methods from in a presentation I gave at Linux Fest Northwest here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SsSzl5mweA

In reply to by smlinde (not verified)

I can confirm your remarks about the patience you have to pay to explain to an elderly person how to use computers. But writing down the steps you need to get to your destination results in much less support requests.
It's not always easy to be patient, but it's worth it because in the end they are able to do what they want to on their own.
Thanks for your article, now I know there are other people taking pretty much the same steps I always take to explain the use of computers to older persons.

I'm always glad to hear stories from other people that I'm not the only person passionate about this subject and putting thought into it as well! Currently I'm working on creating printable documentation for a lot of the specific tasks that I can leave behind in addition to the notes I encourage them to take during support sessions.

In reply to by someone (not verified)

Much to the chagrin of my better half, I accumulate supposedly "obsolete" PC's, wipe them, and install various flavors of Linux to restore them to usability. If there are too many issues with the hardware, I strip them of usable parts to use as replacements before I recycle the leftovers.

Sometimes I use them as purpose specific units - media server, experiment box, audio production, etc. Often though, I give them away, for the most part to elderly folks on a fixed income, kids in my relatively poor neighborhood, family, etc. When I'm going to give one away, I re-wipe it and install a distro that's appropriate for their experience, skills and needs that will run on the resources the hardware can bring to bear. I also pre-install any software they may need to get started.

While I'm doing that, I write them a step by step guide of how to get started accomplishing the basics we discussed with links for a deeper dive which I leave on their desktop. Since it's older equipment, I put right across the top of the note in bold caps "IF YOU DIDN'T BACK IT UP, SOONER OR LATER YOU'LL LOSE IT" and a short explanation of how to save their data to an external HDD, Flash Drive and in the cloud.

If they email me for help afterwards, I ask them to tell me three places they looked for the answer first and then what part of it they didn't understand. I won't help by phone or in person (unless the hardware has died) and I won't give them any answers they didn't try to find on their own. One thing I always tell them is, as long as you backup your files, you can't do anything to this computer that can't be fixed, usually in a minute or two so don't be afraid to explore.

It's very rare that I get an email for help.

About tip #3: I'd recommend to have the trainee take the notes into a computer document (LibreOffice or Google Doc) and not to a notebook. This will allow the trainee to gain confidence and create a search-able resource

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