En español | Just a few years ago, Cindy Riley of New York City was intimidated by computers.
"I had a fear that if I touched a button it would mess up another button," she says.
Riley, now 70, was hardly alone in her trepidation about technology.
About one-third of Americans 65 and older don't use the internet, according to a study last year by the Pew Research Center. Even among those who use it, roughly one-third aren't confident when performing tasks online.
Riley was fortunate, though. About the time she was transitioning from full-time to part-time work, she learned about a program offering free tech classes to older adults. She signed up and not only overcame her fears, but also made friends with others facing the same challenge.
In today's connected world, the access and use of technology by older Americans is important to building and keeping a social network. A study by William Chopik, a professor at Michigan State University, found "greater technology use was associated with better self-rated health, fewer chronic conditions, higher subjective well-being and lower depression." The study also found that technology use reduced feelings of loneliness.
Thanks to the classes, Riley is staying more engaged with her social circle via her computer and her cellphone. She uses technology to text her grandchildren, other relatives and friends; to follow the news about her native Jamaica; to make travel reservations; and to track down information that helps in her role as a volunteer New York City tour guide for Big Apple Greeters.
"The computer has become my education," she says proudly.
Technology training classes
Riley is an enthusiastic student at Senior Planet, a program run by Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), a New York City-based nonprofit that has offered more than 35,000 classes since it began in 2004. Senior Planet programs now operate in New York, Maryland and Florida, and they will begin in Colorado at the end of July.
"In 14 years, I have not been able to identify a single person that has not learned the technology," says Tom Kamber, founder and executive director of OATS.
Kamber says the average age of students at OATS is 74; some are in their 90s. He adds that the vast majority of participants report that they have made friends through the program.
For Robert O'Neill of New York City, who turns 70 this summer, it was a path to new connections and a new outlook. Following his retirement after 40 years in the financial services industry, "I soon realized I had no plan or family or friends I could interact with," he says.
"I had no computer skills," he adds. At Senior Planet, O'Neill says, "I am learning basic technology and looking at aging in a more enlightening and positive attitude."
The Global Council on Brain Health, comprised of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts, and convened by AARP, reports that, "Typically the digital engagement complements rather than replaces the in-person communication."
OATS is far from the only organization serving seniors who may be fearful of technology.
AARP offers free technology training in 36 markets across the country. In 2018 alone, AARP expects to train about 30,000 people age 50 and older.
The basic class includes such topics as searching the internet, taking and sharing photos, and downloading apps. Skills taught at the next level range from voice dictation to photo editing to backing up data.
Expanding worlds, changing lives
Janae Wheeler, an AARP tech trainer in Washington, D.C., sees up close the difference that texting and FaceTime can make in the lives of older adults.
She recalls one participant in an AARP workshop who "was practically in tears that she can now watch her grandkids grow up."
Michele Jaco, an AARP trainer in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, says that when seniors begin to conquer their fears of technology, their world expands.
"I hear over and over again how it opened up a relationship with kids and grandkids," Jaco says. "It’s so rewarding. It’s excellent to know you are giving someone a skill that can change their life."
Wheeler and Jaco use iPads to teach older adults the rudiments of the internet, and they explain how students can continue studying at their own pace using tutorials.
"We eliminate the fear of the device," Jaco says. "They learn they can’t break it."
Once they get comfortable with the computer, these older adults find many uses for the internet. Jaco recalls one participant who described feeling empowered that she could use the internet to research a medication she needed to take.
At OATS, students can take classes on how to use the internet on topics including financial security, health and wellness, social engagement and civic participation.
Kathleen Wyer Lane, 72, a New Yorker who has attended OATS classes, says she is learning how to build a website, an important skill for her business as a marketing consultant.
"I come from a generation where we changed the world," she says. "With Senior Planet, it puts you right back in the age of exploration."
Older adults can also find technology training at public libraries, senior centers and community colleges.
Even in Palo Alto, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, there is an evident need for technology training. "We’ll sit down and coach people to use different technologies," says Monique le Conge Ziesenhenne, president of the Public Library Association and a local librarian. Classes are typically held in January to accommodate people who have gotten a device for the holidays and need instruction in how to use it, she says.
To find out about AARP’s technology workshops, go to learn.aarp.org.
For information on Senior Planet, go to seniorplanet.org.