Tutors Teach Seniors New High-Tech Tricks

Dec 27, 2011
Originally published on February 27, 2012 4:06 pm

A week after Christmas, many Americans are no doubt trying to figure out how to use the high-tech gadgets they got as gifts. This can be especially challenging for seniors. But a number of programs across the country are finding just the right experts to help usher older adults into the digital age.

For Pamela Norr, of Bend, Ore., the light bulb went off as she, yet again, was trying to help her own elder parents with a tech problem. To whom did she turn?

"My teenage kids," she says.

Norr happens to head the Central Oregon Council on Aging, and thus was born TECH — Teenager Elder Computer Help.

"I thought if my parents need it, probably other seniors need it, too," she says.

High school students studying computer tech or involved with the National Honor Society sign up to teach local senior citizens about Facebook, Skype, smartphones, even something as seemingly simple as a camera. Norr discovered that many seniors had been given digital cameras by their children.

"They were going around town taking all these great pictures that they wanted to send to their family members," she says. But they "couldn't figure out how to connect to the USB port or take out the SIM card."

Many elders have moved to central Oregon to retire. Sigrid Scully, 84, signed up for a TECH class because she was struggling to stay connected with far-flung family.

"My kids were not returning calls," she says. "They don't write letters. They are so knowledgeable about texting and email, and so I needed to get to know how to do that."

Scully worried she'd never catch on. She'd read a computer manual once, but didn't understand words like "icon" or "cookies." She says her teen tutor was personable and used plain language.

"So many teenagers think that seniors are just old people that don't know anything," she says. "And actually, the camaraderie and knowledge that we can transmit to one another is so wonderful and so helpful. I had that feeling with this class."

Sensitivity Training

"It has made me think about what life was like without Facebook and the Internet," says 15-year-old Tucker Rampton, who's helped train about a dozen Oregon seniors. He's been surprised to have to explain email, something he thought everyone had mastered. Then again, a lot of seniors ask him about Twitter, which Rampton admits he knows nothing about. He says teaching tech to seniors has changed his perspective.

"I think it's a very good idea to work on your patience," he says, "and be more understanding when it comes to what's going on in their minds."

At Pace University in New York, college students who tutor seniors in local retirement homes are prepped with sensitivity training.

"They get to feel what it's like to be 70, 80, 90 years old," says associate professor Jean Coppola, who directs the program. "They wear specially prepared glasses that give them different visual impairments."

Coppola also has students do things like tape two fingers together — to simulate the effects of arthritis or a stroke — then try to navigate a mouse. By the time they're at the computer with an elder, she says, they're not frustrated at all.

"They'll say something a hundred times because they've worn cotton balls or earplugs in their ear," she says. "They understand that they have to speak up, articulate their words."

Coppola says the whole thing is a bonding experience for both generations. Applause often breaks out the first time a senior receives an email. Some have been able to see new grandchildren for the first time through emailed photos.

Pamela Norr, in Oregon, says young trainers also gain new confidence. They see that the seniors are "not criticizing me for the way I dress," she says, "or clucking their tongue. They're actually respecting me for the knowledge base that I have."

Perhaps most unexpected, some teen trainers and seniors have even become friends. They keep in touch long after class ends — through Facebook, of course.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

Our first story: Grandma's Got a Smartphone. No doubt, lots of seniors received high-tech devices this holiday season. Now the challenge is figuring out how the darn things work.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden has this story on a growing number of programs to guide seniors into the digital age.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Forget iPads or Smartphones, the digital divide can come down to something as seemingly simple as a camera.

Pamela Norr, in Bend, Oregon, discovered many seniors have been given digital cameras by their children.

PAMELA NORR: They were going around town taking all these great pictures that they wanted to send to their family members, and couldn't figure out how to connect the USB port or take out the SIM card.

LUDDEN: Norr heads the Central Oregon Council on Aging. Her own elder parents often need tech help. And the light bulb went off one day as Norr, yet again, put her parents in touch with - who better - her teenage kids.

NORR: So I thought, you know, if parents need it, I think probably other seniors need it, too.

LUDDEN: And so was born TECH - Teenager Elder Computer Help. Eighty-four-year-old Sigrid Scully signed up because she was struggling to stay connected with far-flung family.

SIGRID SCULLY: My kids were not returning calls and they don't write letters. They are so knowledgeable about texting and email, and so I needed to get to know how to do that.

LUDDEN: Scully worried she'd never catch on. She'd read a computer manual once, but didn't understand words like icon or cookies. She says her teen tutor was personable and used plain language.

SCULLY: So many teenagers think that seniors are just old people that don't know anything. And actually, the camaraderie and the knowledge that we can transmit to one another is so wonderful and so helpful. And I had that feeling with this class.

TUCKER RAMPTON: It has made me think about what life was like without Facebook and the Internet.

LUDDEN: Tucker Rampton is 15, and has helped train more than a dozen Oregon seniors. He's been surprised to have to explain email - something he thought everyone knew. Then again, a lot of seniors ask him about Twitter, which he admits he knows nothing about. Rampton says teaching tech to seniors has changed his perspective.

RAMPTON: Well, I think it's a very good idea to work on your patience. And, you know, be more understanding when it comes to what's going on in their minds.

LUDDEN: At Pace University in New York, college students tutor seniors in local retirement homes. They're prepped with sensitivity training.

PROFESSOR JEAN COPPOLA: So they get to feel what it's like to be 70, 80, 90 years old, because they wear specially prepared glasses that give them different visual impairments.

LUDDEN: Program director Jean Coppola also has them do things like tape two fingers together, to simulate the effects of arthritis or a stroke, then try to navigate a mouse. By the time they're at the computer with an elder, Coppola says, they're not frustrated at all.

COPPOLA: They'll say something like 100 times because they've worn cotton balls or earplugs in their ear. And they understand that they have to speak up, articulate their words.

LUDDEN: Coppola says the whole thing is a bonding experience for both generations. Applause often breaks out the first time a senior receives an email. Some have been able to see new grandchildren for the first time, through emailed photos.

Pamela Norr, in Oregon, says young trainers also gain new confidence from their interaction with seniors.

NORR: They're not criticizing me for the way I'm dressing or clucking their tongue. They're actually respecting me for the knowledge base that I have.

LUDDEN: Perhaps most unexpected: Some teen trainers and seniors have even become friends. They keep in touch long after class ends - through Facebook, of course.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.