Ivy Duncan, a student at the Center for Accessible Technology. Still from a short video about the senior program there by Alex Orlando and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou
Ivy Duncan, a student at the Center for Accessible Technology. Still from a short video about the senior program there by Alex Orlando and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou. Scroll down to watch video
Ivy Duncan, a student at the Center for Accessible Technology. Still from a short video about the senior program there by Alex Orlando and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou. Scroll down to watch video

By Alex Orlando and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou

Charlie Falk touched the glossy surface of his Android smartphone with trepidation. After several minutes of swiping up and down, he raised several weathered fingers to his forehead and sighed deeply.

“Where do I go to find my login?” the 74-year old retired taxi driver asked, his voice cracking slightly with frustration.

Assistive technology specialist Jennifer McDonald-Peltier leaned over and placed a hand on his screen. Step-by-step, she helped him connect to the building’s wifi network. After giving Falk’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze, McDonald-Peltier stepped to the front of the classroom and began her class on smartphone basics.

“When you unlock your phone, the very first thing that you see is your home screen,” she explained.

Her students studied the rainbow-colored iPhone screen projected on their monitor. Ivy Duncan, a retired foreign service secretary, leaned forward and narrowed her eyes in concentration.

The class at Berkeley’s Center for Accessible Technology was part of Senior Connects, a free program that provides Bay Area residents over the age of 65 with hands-on technology training. During their sessions, seniors learn how to use computers, smartphones and tablets so that they can become more connected in their daily lives.

McDonald-Peltier said she hoped to help her students explore the possibilities of digital technology, from using Gmail and Skype to connecting with family and friends, to discovering hours of long-lost music on YouTube.

“The challenge is that they very clearly see the promise here,” she said, but added that her students get overwhelmed when their desires exceed their abilities. “They’ll come with these very grand questions: I want to have my own website; I want to stream music; I want to share it with my nieces and nephews. They know what’s possible. But they don’t have any of the foundation.”

YouTube video

Seniors tend to be late adopters of technology. According to data released by the Pew Research Center, 53% of seniors did not have access to high-speed internet at home in 2014. And a significant proportion of older adults were entirely disconnected from computer screens and iPhone keypads two years ago — 41% did not use the internet at all, while 23% did not use cell phones.

But with each passing year, more and more seniors are getting connected. In 2014, 59% of seniors reported that they went online—a six-percentage point increase from 2012, when only 53% of Americans over 65 were using the internet or email.

Senior Connects’ goal is to increase those numbers. McDonald-Peltier said she sometimes needs ten minutes to explain how to move apps from one screen to another. Another time she might be showing her students the best way to access Gmail. She ultimately hopes to provide her students with simple strategies for approaching common problems.

“Point-and-click teaching doesn’t work, because eventually there’s going to be a time where you point and there’s nothing to click,” McDonald-Peltier said. “I wanted to give them a strategy that accounts for the fact that all of the controls could be completely different from one device to another.”

When McDonald-Peltier teaches her classes, she often relies on metaphors. During one class, she explained how a wireless connection was similar to an on-ramp and a browser could be thought of as a car. She encouraged her students to apply the same strategies to navigate any browser just like they drive a car the same way, regardless of whether it’s a Toyota or a Volvo.

McDonald-Peltier’s biggest challenge may be that many of her students have disabilities. Aging can often translate to vision, memory or mobility difficulties, making simple tasks like typing into a search engine, remembering your password or navigating a webpage even more daunting.

Falk, the retired taxi driver, said he felt very handicapped because he couldn’t figure out his computer.

“I’m very intuitive and creative, but when it comes to details, I get lost. With the computer, you have to know down to the detail,” he said.

He recalled sitting with his laptop at home and struggling to attach photos to emails. He would often press a button that would cause the email to disappear.

“My mind would freak out,” he said.

McDonald-Peltier said the difficulty of getting online is often compounded by the rising costs of computers, smartphones and tablets. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average personal income for seniors over 60 in the Bay Area is around $26,100. Right now, a MacBook Pro 2016 can cost upwards of $1,300.

Duncan, the retired Foreign Service secretary, has a cell phone but hasn’t made the jump to a smartphone yet because she can’t afford it.

“I can’t not only keep up with the technology, I can’t keep up with the expense of the technology,” said Duncan. “Somewhere along the way, I lost my ability to keep up.”

But Duncan said that the ability to use email has changed her life.

“This is from my friend in Florida,” she said, clicking on a link to a New York Times article she received on her Gmail account. “I didn’t know anything about the museum before she sent me this website. But I communicate with her on a regular basis.”

Duncan’s inbox showed a stream of emails from her friends. Each one represented a relationship that had been revived through digital technology, taking her from Hawaii to West Africa with a single click.

Alex Orlando and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou are students at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Pioneering disability center opens its Berkeley campus (11.19.10)

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