Seniors tackle 21st century communication with aid from Encore program

Weary eyed students fighting the afternoon drag follow Professor Maureen Feldman as she paces the floor. She starts with an overview of the various apps, websites and other technology they discussed throughout the semester. Midway through the conversation, the room comes alive with laughter after a student reads aloud a scam email from an ‘Ambassador of Nigeria’ who promises to make her a billionaire.

Feldman’s class, Stay Connected: Communicating in the 21st Century, is designed to help adults—primarily seniors citizens—learn how use new technology. The end goal is that her students leave feeling confident in their abilities to communicate with loved ones using their smart devices.

“Many of them [my students] are retired and many of them are in-between. Maybe they’ve lost a job in their late 40’s or early 50’s and they’re transitioning so they’ve come back to refresh,” Feldman said.  “I’ve had some students in their 50’s who have a phone but we’re only using one small portion of it and they wanted to learn about communication and technology.”

Feldman holds a Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Physiology and Masters in Media Communication Psychology specializing in positive aging and cross-generational communication.  While she was working toward her master’s she taught a class.

“I would watch the older seniors take out their flip phones,” Feldman said. “I’d ask them, ‘What are you going to do when they stop making those?’ and they would reply, ‘I’ll just buy another one’.  I felt they would be left behind and I was concerned that they’d be left out of the conversation.”

From that point onward, Feldman worked toward her goal of inclusion, but there was more to it. The Baby Boomer generation is about 78 million people and the generation after that is smaller.

There are not enough health care professionals or live-in facilities to host older people when they need help. There is a new trend in home care where sensors or cameras are put in homes for seniors to use to communicate or call for help in an emergency.

“The goal is not just social media, but media is sort of the ‘in’ to get them to open up their minds and play, so by the time they need to have real hands-on experience with medical devices they’ll be able to do that,” Feldman said.

In the first class of the semester, Feldman has her students make a list of modern technology that people use then emphasizes how it’s in the cell phone. The class itself is a lecture course where computers are not required and general knowledge would be beneficial.

Students in the class are introduced to the history of communications and changes, the social media revolution, introduced to tools and terminology, internet, cell phones, smart phones, apps, online safety and privacy and much more.

As part of learning how to navigate and properly use the technology, they encourage to join the private class Facebook page where they practice how to like, comment and share articles and photos from their feed.  Students at first are wary of using the internet because everything is public.

“They are all afraid to share, worrying about who’s going to see it,” Feldman said.  “It’s so basic, but that’s where my hardest issue is that they are worried about privacy. Everything’s public so then they realize that they’ve only had the illusion of privacy before.”

Proper etiquette is emphasized as how to behave and set boundaries for existing relationships.  There’s also tips taught on how to effectively text someone.

Retired law firm employee Diana Kealer, 72, who worked in the bankruptcy department, was one of the first in the company to get a computer in 1985, but she never got deeply involved with technology.

“Since I was on the computer all day, I never used the computer at night,” Kealer said. “But now I’m retired and in a different situation. My son just got me an iPhone and I needed to learn what was out there for me to use it for.”

This class is important for the participants because they have the interest, but sometimes they don’t have someone to help guide them. They like the course so much that Feldman often sees the same men and women semester after semester.

“There’s always a series of new questions that open up new avenues and you can make these things continue if you wanted to,” retired engineer Bob Schaaf said. “My son’s a computer expert, but he won’t teach me.  He says, ‘Pick up the damn thing and play with it till you’re sick of it,’ and I’m sick of it because I could never get where I want.”

Schaaf, who has taken the course twice, had a negative opinion about spending his time learning how to use technology.  However, after his wife pushed him into the class and after diving into the world of YouTube, which is a big part of the course, he came around.

“I’m an engineer and I like to take things apart but sometimes I felt ill-prepared because I didn’t have any knowledge of the equipment,” Schaaf said. “I had problems with the dryer and the first time around my son said, ‘You’re too old, you can’t fix that’.  A guy from sears came to fix it and I watched him and the next time the problem came around I went to Youtube and fixed it.”

Encore department holds a variety of classes for seniors to take each semester and similar to Stay Connected they are free and participants just need to sign up.

Stay connected helps seniors take advantage of what technology has to offer such as medical apps to help them remember to take medicine. It’s a way for seniors to stave off senior loneliness and isolation by making friends and learning how to use tools like Skype and Facebook to stay connected.

“I was not on Facebook and I always wanted to be and thanks to Maureen you know it’s a very big part of my life now,” retired principal Sohn Reynolds said.  “It’s extended my relationships far beyond what they were and it’s incredible.”