On the importance of seniors learning the internet

You’re never too old for the digital age. That was the message during SUN-B’s December 17 meeting, which was held at the SS Joachim and Anne Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Coney Island.

Founder and Executive Director of Older Adults Technology Service (OATS) Tom Kamber was the morning’s guest speaker as he discussed the struggles and importance of getting seniors to become comfortable with the internet.

“The challenge is that as people get older, they tend not to adopt technology the same rates as younger people,” said Kamber. “When seniors are not online now, it’s a real liability. People not on the internet are second class citizens in the social world.”

Many reasons were cited for the elderly’s hesitance, but one key factor is fear. “When seniors first come to the classes, they say it scares them,”  noted Kamber. “It makes them nervous and anxious.”

Founded about nine years ago in Park Slope, OATS has tried to eliminate those growing concerns, one student at a time. The nonprofit organization began by holding computer classes to seniors at housing developments in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

From there, Kamber and company attempted to find the best strategy for engaging seniors to learn. One of the answers included pacing. “People need to go slowly and have a program focused on seniors. It’s like learning a new language,” Kamber explained.

One of OATS’ first courses, in which students met two days a week, lasted 10 weeks. The main focus was email and web browsing. “We slowed it down and got it more focused. Sometimes it takes four sessions just to get comfortable with a keyboard and mouse. If you go too fast, you lose them,” he said.

Another solution to acclimating seniors to the ever-changing technological world is communicating in a physical space. “People really like to learn in a social environment,” Kamber said.

Once OATS learned how to relate to seniors, the cause eventually grew. With the help of grants from citywide (and eventually federal) funders, today it’s a nationwide initiative, having expanded to South Dakota, Washington D.C. and other states.

In 2006, Senior Planets — a community of older adults using technology — was created by OATS. And this past January saw the opening of the Senior Planet Exploration Center, the first building dedicated to seniors learning technology. Several classes are taught at the center.

Despite the help of OATS and Senior Planet, there is still a long way to go. According to one survey, only 53 percent of seniors are online. “It’s not a technology problem. It’s a people problem,” said Kamber. “We need to create systems that support them and engage them.”

Because of the organizations, 15,000 free classes are offered at 70 different locations. Over 500 people are signed up for current classes.

“We’re really thrilled to have Tom here today,” said SUN-B President and Chair Vicki Ellner. “The technology side of senior service is something we haven’t done something on.”

For more information on OATS, visit www.oats.org and www.seniorplanet.com. For future SUN-B events, www.visit sunb.org.

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