Leveraging Technology to “Age with Attitude”

by Evelyn Levine

One day, my 85-year-old mom asked me to teach her “the computer.” She had no idea what was involved, but she just had a sense that this would somehow make her increasingly-restricted life a little fuller. I was skeptical that learning how to use a computer would positively affect my mom’s life—but it turns out she was way ahead of me on this.

Research Findings: Seniors and Technology

The fastest growing demographic in the U.S. are people over 75, with estimates of there being 50 million people in this age bracket by 2050. During a time of exploding technology usage and innovation, there is an age-based digital divide, and people who are not comfortable with technology can feel “left out.”

And that feeling would be valid. Research conducted by the New York Academy of Medicine found that technology use can positively impact lives through increasing social connections, social and civic participation, and access to important information.The research studied an innovative organization, Older Adults Technology Services (OATS.org), a non-profit organization that runs the largest municipal technology program for seniors in NYC. The OATS mission is to empower seniors with the technological skills that will allow them to live as independently as possible. Through OATS’ nationwide centers, seniors can participate in one-to-one training, workshops, lectures, and special events; the centers also provide free internet access along with computers and mobile devices for seniors to use on-site.

Technology as Means (not an End)

The OATS stated mission is to tie seniors’ increased computer and internet access and skills to outcomes such as their ability to access important financial, governmental and health information; to connect with others and stay engaged in cultural trends and civic issues. Technological access and skills can also perhaps lead to starting a business! One popular class offered by OATS focuses on learning how to build a website and to sell products using the Etsy app.Seniors using technology can provide immense benefits to themselves and to society as a whole. Computer use is associated with lower levels of loneliness, decreased depression, improved self-esteem, and cognitive functioning. And, more broadly, it can assist in efforts to assist seniors to “age in place.”

Award-Winning Training

OATS was recently awarded an Excellence in Training and Education Award by the American Society on Aging The model used by their award-winning training is one of blended learning: the training includes lecture, hands-on exercises, and independent study and follow-up via online course materials, videos and exercises.The New York Academy of Medicine has stated: “It is not enough to just offer technology training to older adults. What’s needed for this population is well-designed and thoughtfully-administered components (curriculum, trainers, manuals classroom atmosphere, style) creating a package for success.” OATS’ training, incrementally paced with hands-on practice, is delivered in a safe, supportive and positive environment, thus increasing a senior’s feeling of comfort and confidence with technology.

An Open and Safe Environment

OATS sounded great when I read about it; but I wanted to see it for myself. I visited OATS’ local NYC Senior Planet Exploration Center (which is the flagship center and is now one of 6 OATS senior centers located across the nation). Over 100 seniors utilize this center daily.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived was the open design. I was told it was an intentional decision, to create a sense of community and encourage social interaction.

I sat in on an iPad Basics workshop. Approximately 10 students (ranging in age from 65-75+) sat around a table, each with their own iPads, listening intently as the trainer (who is a retired schoolteacher) patiently showed them on a projected screen exactly how to organize and manage the apps on the iPad. She explained one topic at a time and then had everyone try it on their own iPads. Then she went around to each student individually to check their work and assist with any difficulties. The trainer stressed that she would not touch the mouse and made sure each person tried it on their own. The trainer’s emphasis throughout was on positive feelings such as a sense of accomplishment and helping each other out.Membership at the Senior Planet is free for those over 60 years of age, allowing anyone to become part of a growing community who are excited by new technology and are “aging with attitude.” This sentiment was not only prominently displayed on the large screen at the NYC center but was embodied by those I met at the center during my visit.  As one 80-year-old woman told me, “If you’re a senior, you need to be constantly learning new things.”

Evelyn Levine works as a Training and Staff Development Director for the U.S. Courts. She writes on worldwide learning and development trends in public and private sectors.  She can be reached at levinee@prodigy.net.