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A New Way to Beat Tech Anxiety

AARP and OATS's Senior Planet can teach you how to use the latest technology

A grandpa  sits on a couch looking at a tablet with his grand daughter


Bob Edwards:

Technology access and literacy make a big difference in today's world. For many, tech enables people to work, to learn about vaccine availability in their communities, or to stay in touch with loved ones. But those who are less comfortable with tech can feel isolated and reliant on others.

Today's show is a toolkit for those who want to use technology better, have their questions answered, and maybe even make some new friends and connections.

Tom Kamber:

We're talking about a lifestyle change for people. So it's kind of like learning a language, but we need to think of it beyond just the notion of the grammar of it all. When you teach a language, it's not about teaching just the words, it's really about teaching the whole culture and getting people to think about the benefit of what they're getting out of the access to this whole new world.


Bob Edwards:

That’s coming up next.

Hi, I’m Bob Edwards with An AARP Take on Today.

How has the pandemic changed our relationship with technology?


Scott Frisch:

There has always been, and let's call this pre-pandemic times, where there's been a digital gap or digital divide in this country around people's understanding of technology, their use of technology, and their access to technology.

If you fast forward to March of 2020 in the last 10 or 11 months, I believe that this digital divide has actually shrunk. Older adults in this country and quite frankly across the world...they're using the technology that they otherwise would not have used so quickly.


Bob Edwards:

That’s Scott Frisch, AARP’s Chief Operating Officer, responsible for two big moves the organization has made to help its 38 million members and all older adults live their best lives.

One is a new virtual community center. Since the pandemic has shuttered many brick and mortar community centers, he'll discuss what AARP is doing to bring people to a sense of community and connection, where they can enjoy events like free movies, concerts, cooking classes, museum tours, and much more.

And earlier, you heard Tom Kamber compare tech education to learning a new language. He's executive director of OATS from AARP. He's here to talk about why AARP and Older Adults Technology Services have joined forces. Tom's been on the show before -- in episode 101, he shared information about OATS's free Senior Planet Courses for older job seekers. And as he'll tell you, by joining with AARP, those courses are expanding, becoming more accessible and will help all older adults leverage technology to transform their lives, and their communities



We’ll leave links to both of those programs in the show notes.

Here’s just one success story Tom has to share from someone who took a course.


Tom Kamber:

We had a woman recently in New York, who emailed us, and she said she took a course... They were delivering a program on how you can use the internet to get a part-time job and earn some money. And this woman emailed to say that she had gotten involved as a census enumerator, helping out with the census, and she then started earning a little bit of cash that she needed as a way of supporting herself. And then when COVID hit, she used that those resources to buy a car so that she could get out of New York and go visit people in socially distancing ways in North Jersey, where all of her friends live.

She wrote me this email and she says she bought a 1997 Chrysler Sebring convertible. She was income, so she was able to be productive. So she was driving out to New Jersey and she said, "I'm thriving in this era. I feel better about myself because I'm coming up with ways to support myself and to be able to invent my own future."


Bob Edwards:

Scott, tell us about the virtual community center. How do you plan on building community online?


Scott Frisch:

The pandemic has changed how we work, learn, and interact as social distancing guidelines have led to a more virtual existence, both personally and professionally. And for millions of us who are caring for loved ones during the pandemic, we've been tested and stretched in new ways. And essentially that is why the AARP has recently launched the new virtual community center. I think it probably goes without saying that social isolation and loneliness lead to serious health issues, and two thirds of adults report experiencing social isolation and high levels of anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic. I think that's true for many age groups as well. And many of those affected have not had anybody to turn to for help. And perhaps because many don't have reliable social support networks either, they don't have this group to rely on.

So the virtual community center has really given us the ability to connect with people in different ways and it allows... We know that people want to stay active. We know that they want to learn new things, feel connected to others, but obviously that's more difficult while people are staying safe by staying home.

Bob Edwards:

Tom, online courses to teach about online literacy sounds like it would be complicated, or you could run into problems quickly. How do you manage to engage with people on technology using technology if they're already feeling anxious?


Tom Kamber:

That's a great question, Bob, and I think we've got a bit of a chicken and an egg challenge for ourselves in terms of how do you solve a problem using the solution itself? And one of the things we've learned at OATS over the years is that technology doesn't have to be in a computer. Technology really is anything that can magnify the human ability to communicate or process information or achieve a purpose. So a telephone is a piece of technology and it's just as valuable, and for many people it's more valuable than a computer because it gives them that first line of interaction with people. So what we've done is used the phone line as a way for people to get the basic information and make smart decisions about the technology that they're going to adopt.

And it really ramped up this last summer when we got a call from the city of New York that wanted to distribute some free tablets to seniors that lived in public housing. And they asked if we would help them with the training and the program design and we agreed. So we had to give out 10,000 tablets. The city identified older people that participated and they received these T-Mobile enabled tablets. And of course many of them had never used a tablet and didn't know what to expect. So we set up a call center for the first time ever, and we called 9,700 people in a week. We spoke to them and we said, "You're going to get this device. It's going to come in a box." And no question was considered too rudimentary for us.

We took our time with people and we gave them a preparation so that when they got the device, they knew what was going to happen. And then we called them all back or had them call us, and we spent between 30 and 90 minutes per person coaching them as they set the device up, because they have to be able to get connected to the internet and things like that. And then once they got over that threshold, then they could take the classes online and get on Zoom and people enrolled for multi-week classes and now they're participating in all the programs. But they needed those first few steps on the phone to get here.


Bob Edwards:

Well, what about people who don't have access to high-speed internet? Are they barred from the platform?


Tom Kamber:

They're not. In fact, people who don't have access to high-speed internet can still call into a lot of the Zoom sessions. Many of the Zoom calls are set up as having an audio feature, and a lot of people do call into those calls. Many people don't realize that where you may hear about a program that's out there and feel that you can't participate because you don't have the computer, but in fact, a simple telephone connection will get you to the audio, and a lot of those calls are just as interesting when you just hear the people talking and you can feed some information in as well. So that's an option for people, but we're also really working to expand that internet connection.

So we've been working on a project called Aging Connected where we just launched our first ever really comprehensive research analysis of who's online and how to help get them online. And we're working with AARP to help us shape some policy to make some differences in that arena as well.


Bob Edwards:

Up next, we’ll hear about why this collaboration got started in the first place.


We have a couple announcements to share.

First is a reminder that if you’re in need of health insurance, there is now a new special enrollment period for the COVID-19 public health emergency. You can enroll in or change Marketplace health insurance plans now through May 15, 2021. If you already have coverage through the Marketplace, the rules in your health plan for treatment for the COVID-19 emergency will remain the same, but your health insurance company may have added benefits. For more information, please visit healthcare dot gov slash coronavirus. Once again, that’s healthcare dot gov slash coronavirus.

Next week, we’ll hear from Lee Woodruff, co-founder of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, as she discusses a new program that is offering respite care for caregivers of veterans and service members at no cost.

This year, AARP and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation will launch the new Respite Relief Program for Military and Veteran Caregivers. The free program is designed to provide short-term assistance to help those who are caring for ill or injured veterans or service members at home. Here’s a preview of my conversation with Lee:


Lee Woodruff:

Research has shown that just a small amount of respite ... It might be just an hour away, or, honestly, 15 minutes with a jigsaw puzzle to recharge and to rest, to be able to give, is so critically important. It's the old adage of you've got to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help others.


Bob Edwards

For more information on the program for veteran and military family caregivers, visit hidden heroes dot org.

After launching OATS years ago, what teaching methods do you feel work when it comes to teaching older Americans how to use technology, and are there any methods that don't work?

Tom Kamber:

Everything that we do is oriented around people as older adults, so when we design programs, the first step... Excuse me, the first step is to sit down with people and ask them what they want to learn and observe the most successful training models that work for older people. It is not the same as teaching kids. And if you come at it as if somehow you're working with 10 year olds, you're going to have trouble because people have a lifetime of experience and accomplishment. They want to bring that knowledge and that achievement to bear in the learning environment. So a class that is a participatory is going to go a lot better for people because they want to share their knowledge. Older people tend to really want to contextualize their learning in terms of goals. So we do quite a bit of goal setting.

We do smaller groups on weekends. So if we're doing face-to-face classes, we limit them to about 15 people at a time so that there's a chance to participate. Everybody gets to speak. And then we work on the content so that when we're picking topics that people are going to learn, we're not bringing them on generic technology websites, or websites oriented toward youth issues particularly. Seniors, there are things that people want to learn. There are specific topics they're passionate about. They're passionate about travel. They're passionate about lifelong learning things. So picking topics that are relevant and constantly adjusting and revising and extending on that methodologically makes these courses much more effective, and people keep coming back and referring their friends, so we know it's working.


Bob Edwards:

What inspired the collaboration between AARP and OATS?


Tom Kamber:

OATS really comes out of a community-based background, and we've been building a model that we know is effective for the last 15 years, but we haven't really had a chance to bring it to the next level. And one of the things that's really amazing about Scott and his team over at AARP is that they have this commitment to managerial and organizational excellence that we're learning a great deal from them every single week right now. We're doing all sorts of trainings and classes and things. So we're just getting better at the programs and the delivery systems, and that enables us to go from a program that might be working in five different locations or 10 different sites and bring it to a place where it can be nationwide and be in all 50 States. It's a real dream come true for us and we're really excited about the future right now.


Scott Frisch:

I think with the way Tom described that story about the woman with the Chrysler Sebring is exactly what we're trying to achieve with the affiliation with OATS and the launch of the Virtual Community Center. You're bringing together technology literacy and closing the digital gap or digital divide, and you're marrying it with trying to reduce and eliminate social isolation, especially during this pandemic. So I think that was just a great example of really what we're trying to do here together, and I look forward to seeing more of this as a plays out over the next days, weeks, and months, and years to come.


Bob Edwards

That was Scott Frisch, AARP Chief Operating Officer, and Tom Kamber, Executive Director of OATS. You can now visit the AARP Virtual Community Center online at AARP dot org to sign up and join upcoming virtual events. And for more information about OATS, go to OATs dot org. We’ll leave a link to both in the show notes.

Thanks to our news team.

Producers, Colby Nelson, and Danny Alarcon.

Production Assistant, Bianca Trotter.

Engineer, Julio Gonzalez.

Executive producer, Jason Young.

And of course, my cohosts, Mike Ellison and Wilma Consul.

If you liked this episode, share it with a friend and become a subscriber on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well.

For an AARP Take on Today, I'm Bob Edwards. Thanks for listening.

The pandemic has changed how we work, learn, and interact as social distancing guidelines have led to a more virtual existence, both personally and professionally. On today’s show, Scott Frisch, AARP COO, and Tom Kamber, Executive Director of OATS from AARP, will discuss two programs designed for older adults: the AARP Virtual Community Center and OATS’s Senior Planet online courses. Think of this episode as a toolkit for those who want to use technology better, have their questions answered, and maybe even make some new friends and connections.

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