Computers, tablets and smartphones add comfort and convenience to people’s lives every day. With a few swipes or taps, anything from pizza to prescription refills can be ordered, and everything from car services to doctor appointments can be scheduled. Online shopping means that no one lives too far from a store to get what they need, whether it’s groceries, clothes or a car.
There are weather apps that provide alerts to dangerous conditions and calendar apps that send out reminders for birthdays and appointments. Handheld devices keep shopping lists handy, list out TV programs and even help with crossword puzzle clues.
Most importantly, everyone can keep in touch with family and friends through texting and social media sites, and that seems to be the most important benefit that technology offers to many older adults. In fact, Facebook’s 2014 demographics report showed that the number of adult users over the age of 55 had increased during the previous three-year period by more than 80 percent.
In April of 2016, researchers at Penn State released findings that the upward trend has continued. In 2013, 27 percent of adults aged 65 and older were members of a social media site, like Facebook or LinkedIn. The number has jumped to 35 percent this year.
Despite the many wonderful things that technology and the Internet offer, there are older adults who find it intimidating to jump online and begin surfing the net. There are plenty of helpful opportunities in the north Atlanta region, however.
Computer classes are provided at libraries in Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties. For example, Atlanta-Fulton Public Library’s Kirkwood Branch has a Drop-In Computer Lab that’s available during normal operating hours. Some Cobb County libraries offer an ongoing series that goes through the basics of using a computer, getting online and using email.
Several area library systems offer Book-A-Librarian. Residents can make an appointment for a one-on-one, 30-minute customized session at no charge. According to the Cobb County Public Library, “Available topics include…database assistance, library catalog and account instruction, downloadable media and device assistance and 3D printing.” The service is open to all library patrons.
An Atlanta area organization, Bluehair Technology Group, is a 501c3 non-profit that specializes in connecting seniors with the digital world around them.
Jane Ratliff, Founder and Executive Director of Bluehair Technology, helps seniors learn to enjoy their tablets, smartphones and computers. “All our students are bright and capable, and they can all learn; they just need to have the motivation,” she said. “It’s important to find out what’s important to them. Once they see the value in learning the technology, and once they understand what it can do for them, they’re very receptive.”
According to Ratliff, many seniors want to learn to use their devices to send and receive text messages, as well as to take and save photos. Others are interested in using email and Facebook, in addition to Facetime or Skype, to stay in touch with their families, especially their young grandchildren.
“Americans of every age and income level need to have basic technological skills in today’s society, and it will only become more true in the future.”
– Jane Ratliff of Bluehair Technology
That’s not all, of course. “They’re really open to any services that can make their lives easier, like a GPS to help them navigate on the road, or the Internet to search for information, check bank statements and enjoy the convenience of online shopping,” she explained.
Ratliff said that she was inspired to start the organization in 2011, when helping her mother learn how to use her new iPad. The tablet was a birthday gift from Jane’s brother. He’d hoped their mother would use the iPad to keep in touch with family members all around the country, but it was going to take basic, step-by-step instruction for her to become comfortable with it since she’d had no previous computer experience.
Ratliff’s patience and persistence paid off. She reported that, five years later, her mother, now 91, uses her iPad every day. “She stays connected with her family and friends through Facebook and regularly checks her bank statement. She also plays Words with Friends with five people, including me.”
That’s not the end of the story, by any means. Through her mother’s experience, Ratliff realized that, these days, everyone needs technological skills. She founded Bluehair Technology to fulfill that purpose, specifically focusing on the senior population. It was formed as a non-profit so it could serve a wide range of seniors, through grants, sponsorships and other forms of funding.
“People won’t be able to function in the future unless they can use the latest technology,” she said. “Americans of every age and income level need to have basic technological skills in today’s society, and it will only become more true in the future.”
Karen Keeter, Instructor and Social Media Associate with Bluehair Technology, said that it can be challenging to teach a class where there are wide differences in the levels of knowledge between students. She makes sure everyone stays focused so they stay on track and cover the entire curriculum.
After retiring from IBM three years ago, Keeter looked for opportunities to stay involved in the latest technology. She explained that she always enjoyed working with seniors—in fact, she also volunteers time at the Jewish Home—so becoming an instructor with Bluehair Technology was a perfect fit.
Bluehair Technology relies on its teachers and volunteers to keep offering their services. Ratliff said that instructors should not only have teaching skills and be willing to adapt to the curriculum, they must also be patient, have a clear voice and be able to control a room.
“We’re always looking for volunteers and teachers, specifically skilled, patient teachers like Karen,” she said. “Many of our instructors are retired teachers, while others work in technological fields and donate part of their weekends to teaching.”
This fall, Keeter has been teaching a class of seniors how to use their iPhones. The four-week class meets on Saturday mornings at Saint Jude the Apostle Catholic Church in Sandy Springs. Throughout the class, Keeter and the other volunteers see students’ eyes light up when discovering some of the things their phones can do.
“It’s rewarding when you see those ‘ah-ha moments’ where your students figure out how something works,” Keeter said. “I remember the first time one of my groups sent their first text messages, with selfies, to their kids and grandkids. There were big smiles all around, me included!”.
Where to go to learn…
Workshops and classes that focus on various tech topics are held throughout the Atlanta metro area. Examples of October offerings include iPhone Basics at Saint Jude the Apostle Catholic Church in Sandy Springs, Windows 10 Basics at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church’s Family Life Center in Atlanta and Cyber Sunday at the St. George Village Activity Center in Roswell. Visit www.bluehairtech.org to learn more. Anyone interested in donating or volunteering is also invited to visit the site.
Many libraries in the area offer technology classes that are not necessarily senior-based. The best advice is to call or drop in at your local library and see what they have scheduled. You can, of course, check their websites, but be warned—some library sites are challenging to navigate. Still, you can find library phone numbers on the sites.
By Kathy Dean