Most grandparents today know that if they have a technology-related question, a teenager can usually help. In the City of Manhattan Beach (pop. 35,297), surveys of older adults show that most of them, even those over 80, have a computer, tablet and/or smartphone (typically a gift from family) — but that doesn’t mean they know how to use them. Like other cities, Manhattan Beach is moving to an all-digital communication system. As the amount of online information grows, older adults may miss out on the benefits of using technology.
Identifying Intergenerational Opportunities
Manhattan Beach residents are well educated: 73 percent have college degrees, 31 percent have advanced degrees and they value their highly regarded school district. The local population is also aging. The median age is 42, and nearly 25 percent of the residents are age 65 or older. Like many cities, Manhattan Beach schools and the city historically tended to operate on parallel tracks, without much collaboration. Beginning in 2011, the city and school district made a collective effort to bring together the community’s oldest and youngest members. An intergenerational seminar held in 2012 prioritized topics of interest, and technology topped the list.
Mira Costa High School students perform hours of community service as part of their graduation requirements. The community service program aims to engage students in their community and instill a lifelong appreciation of the importance of being productive citizens who contribute to the quality of life. The high school staff works to identify and develop programs that serve an educational purpose and benefit both the students and the community.
To bring these groups together, Mira Costa High School’s Math Department chairperson and the city’s Senior Advisory Committee, a group of volunteers affiliated with the city’s Older Adult Program, began offering informal Saturday morning technology sessions called Coffee, Tech and Me. The teacher, who has experience working with older adults, trained the students prior to launching the sessions. At Coffee, Tech and Me, students were assigned to tables with topics that matched their interest and expertise: iPhones, PC or Mac laptops, Androids and troubleshooting. Older adults were invited to attend and brought their own mobile devices or used the students’ devices.
Launching a New Collaborative Program
After these sessions produced a positive response, the Senior Advisory Committee collaborated with students at Mira Costa High School to create a program to address seniors’ tech-related needs. The program, titled Connected!, is designed to help older adults understand, navigate and effectively use a variety of technology devices, including smartphones, tablets and laptop computers.
Connected! has three components:
- One-on-one sessions between students and older adults at Coffee, Tech and Me — a series of informal, drop-in Saturday morning events where older adults are paired with high school students;
- Free classes taught by an older adult volunteer who provides an overview of mobile devices and their various applications and troubleshoots problems in a more structured group setting; and
- Home visits by volunteer retired computer experts who help older adults troubleshoot home-based technology and connectivity issues. These visits are made by appointment and free of charge.
The goal is to help older adults become better connected with the community, essential services, friends and family.
Community Benefits in Multiple Ways
“I’m proud to say that this intergenerational program was enthusiastically embraced by the older adults who were surprised by the kindness, patience and knowledge the students showed them. For many it changed the way they viewed these teenagers — and vice versa,” says Diane Campisi, who serves as co-chair of the Senior Advisory Committee. “The students said how much they enjoyed helping the older adults and hearing about their lives. It’s not just about the technology but, happily, about connections made between these generations.”
The positive responses to the program show that an important need is being met. Because the older adults use their own devices and receive one-on-one attention, they can learn and practice at their own pace. The classes and in-home visits provide a more traditional approach to informing and connecting older adults, and the increasing numbers of participants underscore the effectiveness of this approach. As increasing numbers of older adults acquire technology skills, they in turn are recruited as mentors and teachers for beginners.
“Any observer walking into the room where we hold the Saturday morning sessions can immediately understand the mutual benefits of this program — kids listening, explaining and demonstrating, and older adults smiling and saying ‘Aha’ as they learn and practice new skills,” says Kate Nelson, who chairs the Senior Advisory Committee. “Everybody leaves feeling better than they did when they walked in.”
Dayle Eisenhauer is a volunteer training instructor in the Older Adult Program who teaches the group lessons about iPads and iPhones. She says, “This intergenerational effort was absolutely needed because it gave the older adults one-on-one help. Sometimes that’s exactly what it takes to get over the initial hump. The relationship that the high school students and the older adults build allows the older adults to comfortably ask questions about their technology. My group classes have seen an increase in attendance as a result. The older adults are feeling more comfortable with their technology and ready to learn more.”
The city’s commitment and support is not expensive. Manhattan Beach provides the facility, room set-up and cleanup, coffee, snacks and Dial-A-Ride transportation. As older adults become more proficient online, the city can reduce its postal delivery of the newsletter and other announcements, thus reducing mailing expenses. Teaching more residents how to access the city’s services online reduces the need to have city staff respond to inquiries in person or via phone calls.
Through Connected!, students contribute to their community and learn important life lessons about citizenship. Older adults who are connected to their community are more likely to be involved in municipal decision-making processes as well as in activities. Intergenerational programs like this one, especially those that rely on volunteers, not only save money and expand services but also bring people together in a time when families are often geographically separated and many seniors are living longer than previous generations.
The technological revolution has created enormous opportunities for communication, but it may also have increased the isolation of some of our most vulnerable older adults, who need a connection to the larger community to thrive and age in place successfully. Teenagers — who are certainly connected technologically — benefit from the company and wisdom of elders. Ultimately, a connected community is a stronger community.
Contact: Mark Leyman, director of parks and recreation, City of Manhattan Beach; phone: (310) 802-5403; email: email@example.com.