En español | A nonprofit organization that specializes in teaching technology skills to older adults is uniting with AARP to offer its courses to even more older adults nationwide — for free.
Senior Planet and its parent organization, Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), have been working with AARP on projects for a decade or more, including a How to Use Zoom class early in the coronavirus pandemic that drew more than 10,000 participants, says Tom Kamber, executive director of OATS/Senior Planet. Now OATS has joined forces with AARP as an affiliated charity, like AARP Foundation, Legal Counsel for the Elderly and Wish of a Lifetime.
OATS will continue to offer its programs independently. AARP will support OATS in expanding its offerings and making them known to a wider audience through AARP’s new Virtual Community Center. The relationship with AARP allows both organizations to help more people learn the computer skills they need now more than ever because so many activities and events are available only online.
Before the pandemic, nearly three-quarters of adults in the United States had high-speed internet access at home, according to recent Pew Research Center data. But that number misses differences among age groups. About 4 of 5 adults ages 50 to 64 had high-speed internet then, higher than the U.S. average, but only 3 of 5 people 65 and older had the same access.
More than a quarter of people 65 and older told Pew researchers that they never went online. Past Pew studies have shown that online use drops even more among those 80 and older.
Tech anxiety transformed
In many cases, older adults lack confidence in their ability to use new devices and software designed to make their lives easier, the Pew researchers found. They watch from the sidelines as younger family members easily adopt new technology, potential employers use code words for age bias to target “digital native” job candidates, and the pandemic increases their isolation because of the COVID danger that meeting friends face to face may bring.
Jolynn Bailey, 67, a retired teacher who lives in Clifton, Texas, was a reluctant convert to technology. She had used a computer at work and for her grade books, but only because her school required it, she says. She used the computer her daughter bought her only to look at email and log on to Weight Watchers’ website.
Then the pandemic left her alone in her studio apartment with poor TV reception and a few DVDs — unable to go to the nearby gym, head to Weight Watchers meetings in Waco or meet with friends. Her daughter, who works for a tech company in California, found out about Senior Planet in April and suggested she try it. She waited three months, becoming more and more desperate for things to do.
“The first time I went on Senior Planet I was hooked,” Bailey says. “It gave me my world back and more than that, a whole new world.” Now she joins stretch or chair yoga classes to keep fit; participates in the virtual book club; and takes tech classes, even learning how to use an HDMI cable so she can watch YouTube videos from her computer on the bigger TV screen. She’s in Senior Planet discussion groups where she’s met people from across the country and often takes part in several workshops each day.
The idea for OATS/Senior Planet began when Kamber was working on part of the project to revitalize Lower Manhattan after 9/11. An 87-year-old woman in the area called him after learning about his website launch related to the project. But she didn’t have a computer and didn’t know about the internet.
Kamber ended up tutoring her in his office.
OATS was founded in 2004 in New York City as an outgrowth of those lessons. It now has Senior Planet physical centers in five additional cities: Palo Alto, California; Denver; Rockville, Maryland; Plattsburgh, New York; and San Antonio. Classes are entirely online during the pandemic, which allows anyone from across the country to participate, but in-person instruction will resume when it’s safe to do so.
Engagement erases isolation
Senior Planet programs are designed to teach adults 60 and older basic computer skills — including how to start, stop, mute, skip ads and enlarge a YouTube video — and more advanced options. Its interactive online classes, offered in English, Spanish and Chinese, are free to anyone of any age. About 50 classes are on the schedule each week.
“A lot of Latino adults aren’t up to date with technology. Some don’t even have internet access,” says Braulio "Brad" José Veloz Carvajal, a 73-year-old retiree in San Antonio who found out about the Senior Planet classes through his membership in the Pride Center San Antonio. He knew how to use a computer but retired from his job at the Pentagon in 2003, so he wanted to learn all about Google, Facetime and Zoom.
“With what I learned, I was able to talk to my family in Corpus Christi and San Antonio. That made me so happy,” he said after the months of lockdown because of the pandemic. “I hope Senior Planet teaches technologies that can provide a way to talk to other seniors in the Latino LGBT community and start support groups."
Class participants can decide to just listen, speak up with questions or type comments in the chat area. Most sessions aren’t archived for future playback, although some how-tos are posted to Senior Planet’s YouTube channel, but popular courses are offered frequently.
“In some of our classes, we find that they come early and stay late to talk to each other,” Kamber says. “Our trainers seek out opportunities to engage people. They draw people out.” Follow-up with students has shown that participants are using their newfound knowledge.
Technology topics include a range of how-tos such as shopping on Amazon, using Google Maps and hosting a Zoom meeting. Some workshops focus on helping participants struggling with tech issues or learning how to keep their personal information secure. Better balance, chair yoga and stretching sessions are among Senior Planet’s fitness offerings.
“If I can Zoom, you can Zoom,” says Bailey, who decided to become a member of Senior Planet to go along with her 17-year AARP membership. “It’s not that complicated. You just need somebody to guide you through it. And that’s what Senior Planet knows how to do.”
Monica Bentivegna contributed to this story. Linda Dono is an executive editor for AARP. Previously, she served as a reporter and editor for USA Today, Gannett News Service and newspapers in four states, including The Cincinnati Enquirer.
AARP Virtual Community Center opens
Though anyone can register for most of Senior Planet’s free online classes on its website, some of the AARP-affiliated nonprofit’s most popular courses are being offered through AARP’s new Virtual Community Center, including these, which all start at 1:30 p.m. ET:
- Feb. 15, All Things Zoom
- March 1, Protecting Your Personal Info Online
- March 15, Online Health Resources
- March 29, Streaming and Smart TVs
The Virtual Community Center uses Zoom and a few other online platforms to allow users with common interests to learn together. As with Senior Planet’s offerings, these events are live and allow for interactivity — speaking or typing — with others in attendance. It’s not on-demand video.
“The Virtual Community Center is designed in many ways to be like an in-person community center. You sign up for a class and go to it” online, says Heather Nawrocki, AARP’s vice president of fun and fulfillment.
Events on a wide variety of topics, including books, fitness, history, music and screenings of AARP Movies for Grownups, are available now for signup. All are free, have no age restrictions and don’t require AARP membership to participate. Although the programs initially are in English, AARP is looking at expanding the signup platform as well as course offerings for Spanish speakers.