ELDER MUSIC: Unchained Melody
Decisions About Being Old and Single

A Conversation App Just For Elders?

Perhaps you have noticed that young people don't talk on the telephone anymore. So widely true is this that it probably wouldn't make much difference - except to thee and me - if manufacturers just ditched the voice function on those mini computers we still call phones.

Not long ago, the thank you for a box of gifts I'd mailed to a young friend's toddler arrived via text message: “He loves it,” typed 30-something Mom. I'm still don't know which “it” - there were several - he loves.

It's a new world. Even friends in their forties and fifties prefer texting or just checking in with one another's Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds. I know a lot of you live on such services which is why I distribute TGB and The Elder Storytelling Place posts to them. But for me, it's not the same thing as a conversation.

Remember all those years in the past when the phone rang (we didn't know back then who was calling until we answered) and most of the time we settled down for a chat, long or short, with a friend?

In those days, I spoke with my closest friends and relatives several times a week. With no email then, we used the telephone to plan social engagements but even when the point was only to set a time and place to meet for brunch or dinner or a movie, we took a few minutes to catch up on our lives.

Nowadays, we use email (or texts, I suppose, for some) to make appointments for phone calls – those few of us who still like to hear the voices of people we care about. Are we all really so busy – especially now that many of us are retired – that it has become rude to interrupt anyone by calling without a previous agreement as to time?

Of the barely half dozen friends I still regularly talk with on the phone, there is only one I call or who calls me without prior arrangement via email.

TGB reader Tom Delmore sent me a link to an essay at the Wall Street Journal suggesting something the writer, David Gelernter, calls Talknet:

”It will run like any app, on a tablet or a laptop right beside you. When you turn on Talknet, you hear a jumble of voices in your favorite language.

“You see five upright rectangles in a row on-screen, in five bright colors. These are 'featured conversations,' like a diner’s daily specials, but they change regularly: You see a whole new set every five minutes, and they are selected with your tastes in mind.

“Each rectangle is labeled with a topic. Tap or click one—Rubio v. Bush, schnauzers, wisteria in zone 6, grandchildren’s weddings, school board election in Woodbridge, Conn. You hear the conversation you’ve chosen: 10 people at most, anywhere in the world, chatting.”

Gelernter, a Yale computer scientist, tells us that unlike everyone else online, elders want to talk so his idea for Talknet is “inevitable.” He knows this, he says, because

”I said the same about the rise of the Web (which I called the 'mirror world') in 1991 and Twitter-type streams (which I called 'lifestreams') in 1996, so this is no wild prediction, I hope.

“Talknet has large implications. But its first task is to help the elderly. They need it, and we owe them.”

Whew. All that grandiosity is a bit much and it's that paternalistic tone in his voice that ticked me off at the start of his story:

”No group needs social network software more than the elderly,” he starts out. “We have built a frenzied society full of shriek TV, shriek music, shriek movies, shriek ads. Texting and phone-fondling go on ceaselessly. None of this welcomes the elderly, who were often lonely even before we turned up the volume on American society.

“So it’s too bad that today’s social networks are virtually useless to them. The elderly don’t want to type; they want to talk. And if they can’t make sense of new software in 10 seconds, they move on.

“Audio is our first requirement. Losing dexterity is part of aging, and arthritis is not exactly rare.”

There is both truth and not in that lead-in but either way, his tone is irritating.

On the other hand, he is right about elders generally being more comfortable with speech than other modern means of communication and god knows, for a decade I've been promoting the internet as a great invention for elders to reach out, make new friends and keep in touch.

Maybe Talknet would be an excellent extension of what we have been doing these past two decades.

Galernter describes his idea of Talknet in great detail that includes scheduling regularly chats during TV shows for example, creating new topics, taking conversations private and more all done with speech.

The problem for me, however, is that I want to talk with friends, not strangers and it's my younger friends who don't want to. Plus, it sounds, in his description, that there would be so many conversations to choose from it would come down to no choice at all.

But I could be wrong. You can read Gelernter's whole essay here. If for some reason it won't display because you don't have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal,” here is the trick to getting it:

Copy this headline, with the quotation marks, into a Google search: “A Social Network for Talkers”

On the Google return page, click on the link to the newspaper (usually the one at the top) and it should open

(If you're wondering, the trick is not a secret. It's been available since the newspaper went behind a paid firewall and without doubt, the Wall Street Journal is aware of it. So far, they have chosen not to block it.)

After you've read the full idea for Talknet, come back here and let us know what you think.


Me, I've never been comfortable talking on the phone. Speech has rarely flowed easily for me at the best of times. The absence of visual feedback from the other person's face makes it much harder. I can do it if I have to, but it is not a pleasure. Video chats like Google Hangouts or Facetime are much better.

...Not to mention that, as my hearing fades, I'm finding phone conversations becoming more and more difficult for me.

My reactions to this article
"The elderly don't want to type..."
I'm elderly, not true, I love writing/typing etc.
A lot of us our losing our capacity for full hearing capabilities. How suitable would this facility be then?
However I do like the friend-on-friend facility where one person calls another over to the computer with a "Hey!"

In my parents' or grandparents' day, people would often drop by your house, uninvited and unexpected. Commonly on a Sunday afternoon, they'd just show up on the porch, and you were expected to invite them in, serve a refreshment, and chat. The thought makes my head explode.

Well, this is, I think, how young people now view actual phone calls. Beyond the pale, except in exigent circumstances.

To tell the truth, I like texting and email. Unexpected social phone calls DO create inconvenient interruptions, awkward silences, and social pressure. I only call when the subject is simply too complex to write down, or there is an urgent time crunch.


I love to talk on the phone to people I like. Give me a chance, and I'll talk your ear off.

But I only talk selectively; that's why I'm on the do-not-call list and don't list my phone number.

One of the hallmarks of a pleasant day is one during which the phone never rings.

Am I anti-social? Not at all. I call a few friends now and then, when the mood suits me; if I think I have something to say.

I was a customer service rep for a large office supply company. I was required to take a minimum of 100 calls a day from customers who would ask about anything. You might say I was a professional phone talker. I did that for 13 years. Needless to say, I never want to make or get another phone call as long as I live. Thank god for email. I can answer who I want and take my own good time doing it. If the urge to speak to a live person strikes me, I find someone around here to talk to. Telephones should be used for calling 911 or maybe an occasional pizza only.

Like Bruce, I had jobs that required lots of phone time. Even as a teacher I cringed when the phone would ring in my classroom. Or, when I had to call a parent. I love to talk, but I really prefer my conversations face to face.

As for all of the social media, I use it all and I love it. My iPhone goes everywhere with me and I use it constantly. Not as a phone, but as a computer.

I miss the phone calls. My Sister and I would talk almost every day until she passed 18 months ago. I miss her and our daily visits. I figured out awhile ago that phone calls were out of fashion since the PC. In order to make an arrangement these days there is the enquiry. The acceptance. The where when and time do you want to meet? Then several more back and forth emails to arrange a mutually agreeable arrangement. By the time it's over frankly I've lost interest. One phone call and it could be all arranged. Not any more. Oh well.

I am not "apt" to buy, download, connect with/to any apps. And I still have a landline without a way of knowing who is calling, have an attached message recorder.

Learning at our own pace how to join in where we would like to in life has been our way of being in the world. Do we stop our individual learning and
become dependent upon the electronically run universe that is being built with no secure infrastructure?

While, I see there may be value for some who cannot use typing as a means to communicate, I find I converse through typing better than in person. The mind gaps that occur occasionally are not evident in typing--I can wait for the right word without hindering the communication.

The app he proposes reminds me of the calls I get
occasionally that tell me to stay on the phone to join in an AARP conversation. Those do not work for me.

I am also reminded of the app that can take control of the camera on your computer and wonder how there might be invasion of privacy and security issues with such an app hawked to
a particularly vulnerable elders.

I keep seeing the proverbial "shooting fish in a barrel", when I consider all the electronic ways we are being urged to be connected.

Of course, there is risk in all we do and at every hand. What I want to have is the choice of how much risk I take and less rushing into the next new thing. I am by nature, skeptical--could anyone tell that?

I rarely talk to family; I sure don't want to talk to strangers. And I prefer email to phone calls; I don't use email to schedule phone calls (I don't get that, except maybe for working people trying to avoid phone tag). If I have something to say, you'll probably see it on my blog, not on any social network.

I treasure the phone calls I have with the half dozen people who still enjoy a real conversation.

No belly laughs together in email (and certainly not text). No sustained thought with back-and-forth conversation on whatever suits us - politics, movies, books, growing old, life, recent events, etc. etc. - maybe arriving at new information, conclusions or consensus.

Conversation by voice or in person is a give-and-take. It makes a way for intimacy, for growing and maintaining friendship.

Often, between friends, nothing of import is said, necessarily. But the contact reinforces care and love and meaning.

What happens to those life-giving interchanges with only FB, email and text which seem to me to separate people rather than bring them together.

Nothing worse than someone who calls you to ask if you got their email, or to tell you they sent one, within 5 minutes of sending it.

Anything said on the phone, I will forget. Anything put in a text or email, I will remember, I will log and I will archive for reference. (Hooray for Google and the archive function!) I will reply more appropriately, and thoughfully, not while doing the dishes or folding the laundry, mind only halfway on the telecon.

When I'm typing, that's all I'm doing. It gets my full attention. Isn't that a joy in a constantly multi-functioning world?

I spent 35 years on the phone, working for the frigging phone company. I now **hate** to talk on the phone and view texting and email as wonderful additions to my life, as it keeps me from needing to deal with phone calls.

And I also have hearing issues-it's often difficult to hear some voices on the phone.

I do, however, totally agree with your assessment of the slightly superior voice the author gives his essay. As though he'll never get old and need to learn to cope with changing ways.

For me, adapting to what society is now keeps me a part of that society. I used to chide my parents for not keeping up with the new ways of my generation.

And I work just fine with FaceBook, Twitter, Texting and Insta-gram-it's how I keep in touch with my very large and always expanding family. No other generation of grannies have had such instant access to unlimited pictures of their grand children! A true blessing for those who live a distance from their grown kids.

I ove tech and though I doubt that the app thats being touted will appeal to me, it might to others..who am I to tell them not to use it..sounds like an old party line!

I jumped on the band wagon (internet) years ago. I am self taught with a few classes thrown in. I like to be with it, current and relative. I do it all; text emails and for years have long standing phone connections with friends. We have checking in with "I'm still breathing" calls and other subjects. "They" can say what they want...all the so called pros...I don't fall for any of it. I do as I please.


YES! The exchanges in person are the best. I just had a min-reunion with 3 from 50 years ago and we talked non-stop, we laughed, we teared. And we
took up where we left off so many years ago.

We had emailed and phoned to set up our reunion. The emails and phone calls were brief, to the point because we were not sure we were still talking to the same people we knew back when.

However, the first sight brought us back and we shared where we have been with as much candor and concern for each other as we had known 50 years ago.

A hug, a hand on a shoulder, a chuckle, and a belly laugh. There is no substitute for reality and real time be it the conveyer of sadness or happiness--the sharing in person is so precious.

And, now an email or a phone call will carry much more than pertinent details--heart and soul will be there, too.

Even as a child, in the days of party lines and operator connected calls: "hello Mary, could you connect me to Harry at the gas station?" I used the phone reluctantly. If I couldn't see the person I wanted to talk to,it wasn't really a conversation. Now, texting is adequate for reminders,follow-ups etc. But not for conversations

I have two phone chat companions here. We love to phone each other and talk and talk. We also see each other face to face quite a bit. Our friendships are much enhanced by this closeness. Other phone friends live on the west coast, and I tend to call them when I'm there for long chats and then we meet up later somewhere.
My mother and I used to talk on the phone a lot, even when long distance was expensive. The phone was our lifeline to each other. And I do phone my sister from time to time as well, tho sometimes we argue.
In short, telephoning is an intimate medium that is important to relationships for me
My children and grandchildren are not phone people (at least not with me)

I say "ditto" to what Marc Leavitt wrote -silence is golden unless you're talking to someone you really want to talk to and that doesn't have to be too frequently.
I just got off the phone with my sister and we were on the phone till "the cows came home"!

I have a problem using the phone that makes e-mail preferable for me. I have to use closed captioning on the phone due to a hearing loss. That means most conversations are awkward. There are long pauses while I am waiting for captioning to catch up and they are irritating to busy people.

The result is that I only use the phone for conversations with my children and at the times when e-mail won't suffice.

A phone is a last resort necessity for me now, but I would prefer it if my hearing was still normal.

I don't like lengthy phone calls, and never have. The phone ought to be used for emergency messages and to get answers to pressing questions. E-mail (and even snail mail when it is the polite medium to use) can better take care of other routine communication needs.

If one really needs to spend hours talking to someone, the best thing to do is go to see them and have a face-to-face exchange. It that require a road, air, or sea trip, so be it.

Love the phone! Nothing compensates for the sound of a loved one's voice...and the funny, sad, wonderful memories you can relive with an old friend!
G-mail etc. is absolutely no substitution for the 'real' thing and so sorry to read all these comments.

I'm with Marc on this too. I cherish the silence. Sometimes I get over socialized whether phone or F2F events and need a break. I do book time on phone with far away friends. I'm out a lot but major catchups take place every couple of months. I totally embrace this current technology and find FB just simply amazing for updates and PMs also. I arrange most of my life through FB.

If I had friends who live far away, I might feel a bit differently about the phone, but I'm with those who hate it.

An old friend and I wrote each other letters and I loved those, both writing and reading, but I've been stuck on the phone too many times with people who go on and on, and I've come to regard it as an interruption most of the time.

I'm with many TGB readers in that I had plenty of years at work where I spent most of the day on the phone or leaving/returning voice mail. I never was a phone-phreak (not even in my teens and 20s) so I don't miss a ringing phone at all. I use email A LOT, Facebook and Twitter for specific purposes. My typing is still doing fine, thank you. I prefer writing to talking except with family and people I know well.

For me the jury is out on the concept of Talknet--I'd have to experience it. I join those who express concern about privacy issues, and it would be interesting to check in with young Mr. Gelernter 50 years from now--bet his tone will have changed!

David Gelernter is 60 years old.

Ah. He's sixty? Then his mistake is that he's generalizing from himself to 'elders.'

It sounds like he's run into a few dexterity issues, maybe a touch of arthritis in his hands, something that makes typing more difficult for him, but not hearing loss. If so, he's lucky.

Look at this. "Hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic condition in older adults and the most widespread disability. Its prevalence rises with age – 46% of people aged 45 to 87 have hearing loss."

The only generalization about abilities that's even close to accurate is that as we get older, some parts of our bodies stop working as well as they used to. We all do have to adapt to some changes. What fails, when, in what order... that's different for each individual.

As we can see from the comments here, glib stereotypes like "the elderly don’t want to type; they want to talk" are false -- and insulting.

Oops, my bad. I should have confirmed his age first. However, in light of the fact that he is NOT a young man, it's even more interesting that he appears to "talk down" to older people and make certain assumptions about all or most of us. Could be a misperception on my part. . .

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