Doreen Thew, a 92-year-old from Maynooth, Co Kildare, who is overall winner of the 2017 open eir Silver Surfer Awards, pictured with her son Peter Thew at the awards ceremony in Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Doreen Thew is no stranger to technology. During the second World War she worked as a wireless operator in London and now, seven decades later, the 92-year-old spends her days chatting with family through Skype and Snapchat.
Her knowledge of Google enables her to identify the numerous birds that perch outside her bedroom window at the nursing home where she lives in Maynooth.
Ms Thew is so attached to her iPad, which she also uses for online shopping and banking, that the nursing home had to install a wifi booster on her arrival to ensure they met the requirements of this internet enthusiast.
On Tuesday, Ms Thew was named the overall winner of the 2017 open eir Silver Surfer awards, which celebrates the achievements of older people using technology and promotes the benefits of internet usage among older people who might be at risk of isolation.
Less than 25 per cent of people over the age of 65 use the internet, while poor broadband in some areas plays a role in the rural isolation of the elderly, according to Age Action.
However, Justin Moran from the charity says many older people surprise themselves once they sign up to classes in computer and internet use.
“We find they pick it up very quickly once they start, and Facebook and Skype are extremely popular. What we’re trying to do is get across that reluctance to take a class because once you start, a whole new world opens up to you.”
Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People Helen McEntee underlined the role of the internet in reducing social isolation.
“Our later years can be a time of continued learning, of new experiences and adventures, of challenging ourselves to gain new skills and follow new pursuits,” said Ms McEntee. “We all need to break down those stereotypes of older people as vulnerable, sick, and dependent.”
Tuesday’s event, which was attended by older internet aficionados from across the country, included five categories of awards including IT Tutor of the Year which went to Frank Brady from Malahide and the Hobbies on the Net award which went to Betty Smith from Bandon in Co Cork for her marmalade business.
Brendan Crean from Kilbarrack in Dublin, an avid user of social media, received the New to IT award. Mr Crean, who has cerebral palsy, writes a weekly blog and uses his Facebook and Twitter accounts to lobby TDs and local councillors on behalf of people with disabilities.
Retired Wexford Garda John Hayes, who taught himself to read and write aged 20 so he could join the Garda, received the Golden IT Award for his frequent and wide-ranging internet use.
Presenter of Tuesday’s Silver Surfer awards, TV and radio presenter Baz Ashmawy, was joined on stage by his mother Nancy Ashmawy, who he praised for her courage and sense of adventure. Ms Ashmawy co-starred with her son in the adventure reality show 50 Ways to kill Your Mammy, featuring the duo’s travels around the world trying out extreme sporting activities.
Mr Ashmawy said his mother’s participation in the show underlined that pensioners were still capable “of pretty much doing anything”.