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Think you know AARP? What you don’t know about us may surprise you. Discover all the ‘Real Possibilities’

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Overcoming Isolation by Redefining Connectivity

Connecting to Community volunteer helps a partipant use a tablet

Connecting to Community volunteer Rachel Cacek (standing) assists program participant Barb O’Dell (sitting).

David Gladden, 67, a recently retired food service worker who lives in Washington D.C., acknowledges that he felt “in a rut” and “kind of lost” before he signed up for AARP Foundation Connecting to Community (C2C), a pilot program that provides low-income seniors with technology training as a tool to help them form their own social networks and be more engaged in activities and hobbies through the Web.

He had questioned his self-worth following his retirement and admits, “I didn’t feel like I was needed,” and “didn’t communicate well with others.”

David also doubted whether he could succeed in the classroom: “At the age I am, I didn’t know that I would be able to learn anything.”

But David morphed into an iPad aficionado once he was given a free tablet, Internet access and lessons on browser basics, email, blogging and social media, among other subjects.

He now trades family photos with his nephew on Facebook and shares quotes that he culls from the Internet with other C2C students. “There’s billions of quotes out there, and I try to send one off to all of my classmates,” said David. When asked for a quote to describe C2C, David offered, “Always keep the light of education in your eye.”

See also: Step-by-step guide to signing up for Facebook (PDF)

David believes that the six-month course, which was taught by a mix of graduate students and peer volunteers, “gave me my self-esteem back."

Research shows that Internet adoption bolsters the emotional health of seniors. A 2013 study by Case Western Reserve University gave 25 residents of an assisted-living facility a tablet and Internet training, and “after three months of training and tablet usage, participants reported significant improvements in optimism.”

But a 2013 Pew Research Center report found that more than 4 out of 10 Americans aged 65 and older still do not use the Internet — compared with 15 percent of those over 18; the number offline rose to 62 percent among the “G.I. Generation,” people older than 77.

C2C, which has engaged with a total of 151 older adults in Washington, D.C., and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, aims to close the connectivity gap and combat social isolation. “Social connections are the foundation for lifelong well-being,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. “Too many seniors are being left behind and increasingly isolated as more of the world communicates through technology.” 

Related: Learn how you can help reconnect those in isolation

Many C2C graduates have discovered new ways to catch up with old friends and beloved family members. Ruth Schoon, who will turn 91 this year and just completed the course at an affordable housing facility owned by The Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society in Sioux Falls, now uses email to chat with her 39-year-old granddaughter and fawn over her twin 14-month-old great-granddaughters, who live in Cape Cod. “It changes the whole conception of one’s day to listen to a treasured family member,” says Ruth in a video compilation of graduates’ and volunteer trainers’ reactions to the C2C program. Ruth’s granddaughter often attaches videos to the email messages they exchange. “Boy, have I enjoyed watching these twins develop.”

Barb O’Dell, who reconnected with relatives in California after completing the Sioux Falls course, credits her newfound social media skills for transforming her personality. “I’ve been very shy,” she concedes in the video, “and it’s brought me out more. It’s really made me make more friends.”

Rhonda Fisher, a graduate of the Washington, D.C., class, agrees that C2C has enriched her social life. “I would have never imagined how much I miss everyone already,” she says of her classmates. “But I know that I can always reach out and touch each and every one of you with our new technology, the iPad.”

And she posted that sentiment on her new Tumblr blog.

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