Seniors Who Are Virtual Virtuosos?

You bet. More and more older adults are empowering themselves by learning the ABCs of digital life from grandkids and student volunteers.

By Kathleen Kelleher 09/01/2012

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After Dorothy Graff’s husband died 13 years ago, she quickly realized that for the past 52 years of marriage, he had handled most of life’s details—details she would have to manage now. “I had to find my way,” said Graff, now 89. “My kids told me, ‘You have to get a computer.’ But I didn’t know how these things worked. I didn’t know the language. I thought Safari was a trip you took in Africa.”
 
With the help of her children, their spouses, her grandchildren and free computer classes at the Pasadena Senior Center, Graff overcame a daunting digital deficit. “It isn’t unlearnable,” the Pasadena octogenarian proclaims. “If you stick with it, you will learn it.” Graff speaks with the conviction of the technologically empowered. She has macular degeneration and cannot drive, yet she pays her bills online, checks the Dow Jones Industrial Average, reads news and weather reports and emails friends and loved ones. She can Google her health conditions —macular degeneration and diabetes —thanks to her grandson, Dr. John Paul Graff, a Long Beach pathologist who taught her how to increase the contrast and font size of text, and zoom in. The virtual connection to her family, friends and the boundless universe of digital information has changed her life. “It has been a blessing,” Graff said.
 
Fifty-two percent of American adults 65 and older report using the Internet and email, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in June. The report is the first indication that more than half of seniors are online. About 34 percent of adults over 65 say they use social networking sites such as Facebook (18 percent report checking Facebook on a typical day). Almost 70 percent of those 65 and older report that they have cellphones, up from 57 percent a year ago. Many older adults are adopting touch-screen technology such as iPads and smart tablets because the devices are bigger than phones, so the text is easier to see and they’re easier to use. 
 
But for a great many older adults, especially those who did not use technology on the job, learning how to use computers, digital devices and the plethora of their applications is confusing and overwhelming. Even cellphones can be difficult to master; every device comes with its own manual, and the small type size, tiny keyboards and miniature screens can be difficult to manage for seniors with failing vision, arthritic hands and zero technological intuition. Free computer classes are offered at most public libraries, senior centers and lifelong learning programs designed for older adults at community colleges. But some of the best teachers are even closer—digital natives who can be a daughter, son, grandchild, niece or unrelated high school or college student.
 
Take Mariah Tomason. The Temple City High School senior volunteered to teach a Skype class at the Pasadena Senior Center over the summer of 2011. She designed the twice-a-week, 90-minute course and bought headphones with microphones and digital cameras for the center’s computers. The classes were very popular, enabling seniors to connect with relatives as far away as Iraq and China. “If it wasn’t for Mariah, I wouldn’t have even tried it,” said Barbara Simon, 62, of Glendale. “You aren’t even sure what to ask until you have tried it. I used it with my pen pal [of 30 years] in England and a friend in Burbank.”
 
A number of Tomason’s students did not even have email addresses before she helped set them up. Even digitally adept seniors such as Suzanne Barber, who retired in 2005 from her job at JPL in Pasadena, had no idea how to live-video chat. “I knew nothing about Skype,” said Barber, 75, who added that she is currently “addicted” to her iPad. “Mariah made it very clear and it was good hands-on experience. I found it useful for regular long-distance phone calls because it is cheaper than my prepaid cellphone. I have discontinued long distance on my landline.”
 
Indeed, the Skype program was so successful that the Pasadena Senior Center, which also offers classes in Facebook, iPads, cellphones and general computer classes, now has open Skyping hours. Seniors who took the class told Tomason they felt they had enough Skype savvy to teach the class themselves. “It is pretty easy to teach an old dog new tricks,” said Tomason with a smile. “It was very, very rewarding. My favorite experience was a woman who connected with her friend in Great Britain. The woman had been in the British Royal Air Force and she held up photos of herself [from that time].”
 
On teaching days Tomason would hover over her students, ready to support and assist as questions came up. Occasionally, when only one student showed up, she would Skype with that student from another computer in the center. Older adults, who can get easily frustrated, do best when technological support is at the ready. “There has to be a person who is there to help and support older adults so that they can ask a question when it comes up, because there is a fear they won’t be able to use [the technology],” said T.J. 
 
McCallum, an associate professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who studies aging. “Like when the computer asks you a question [such as, do you want to check for upgrades or install new software?] and there will be two or three questions that will pop up in boxes and it will just throw them off.”
 
Three years ago, McCallum created Brain Emporium, a not-for-profit brain fitness program aimed at improving visual-spatial skills, memory, attention, language and abstract thinking in older adults. His mission is encouraging older adults to adopt and use technology that can improve their lives. College students staff the Brain Emporium 
computer lab in Cleveland to help older adults engage in entertaining, interactive brain-fitness activities. While the programming is designed to keep the brain in shape (though it won’t prevent Alzheimer’s disease), McCallum said that the real benefit is the social aspect of different generations coming together to engage digitally. “It is a matter of getting older people to believe they can do it,” said McCallum. “They don’t seem to know the capability of the technology, and we can get them to the next level so they are thinking of using the computer to do something creative or more broad.”
 
And the social benefits go both ways. Some educators embrace the intergenerational connection as an ideal opportunity for adolescents to learn the rewards of empathy, selflessness, patience and service. “Our kids usually work with seniors on using iPhones, and iPads,” said Lauren McCabe, coordinator of the eighth-grade service-learning program at Westridge School For Girls in Pasadena. The students usually work with seniors at the Pasadena Senior Center twice a year. “Some seniors won’t know how to enter a contact into their cellphone and some will come in with new iPads and not be sure how to use them. It is exciting for kids when they get to be the experts.”
 
Closing the digital gap can have a profound effect on older adults’ lives. A cellphone can be the best alert system for an older person prone to falling or other risks that might require emergency help. Dorothy Graff, who lost her driver license a year ago, refers to her cellphone as “my security blanket.” She has been lucky enough to have her grandson, a.k.a. “the computer whiz,” around to help her learn how to use her cellphone and desktop computer to overcome her disabilities. For his part, he relishes the chance to help his grandmother, whom he describes as “the epitome of ‘the little old lady from Pasadena.’”
 
“My grandma is almost 90 and she is losing her vision, yet she is as cool as any young kid using an iMac,” said Dr. Graff, as he rushed out the door of his Long Beach apartment to surf. “It is weird getting emails from her. It’s a huge empowerment for her and it maximizes what she can do. And it is a great bonding experience.” 

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