Digital Elders Upgrade for Work, Family and Peace of Mind

Digital Elders Upgrade for Work, Family and Peace of Mind

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Photo: Digital Elders Denise Davidson, 53 (left), with Peggy Powell, 76, comparing notes on smart phone use. (Photo by Thandisizwe Chimurenga)

Part 2. Read Part 1 here.

LOS ANGELES---Work and familial concerns were part of the reason Denise Lamb decided to sign up for a computer classes at the Digital Elders (DE) project in South Los Angeles. At the time she took the course, she worked for a local nonprofit heavily engaged in social media for exposure and legislative advocacy.

“Social media was so completely new to me,” she said. “I had just learned how to text, I had been texting maybe six months, but I wasn't real comfortable with it; and I was new to Facebook. I thought [since] I have a lot of nieces and nephews and they're on Facebook, I need to learn more about this so I can communicate with them because they are all back East.”

Lamb also said she was concerned about safety because she had ventured into using her credit card online. “I needed to know what was a secure site and how could I protect myself,” she recalled.

For many of the Digital Elders, the extent of their electronic literacy began and ended with their workplace. Prior to becoming a Digital Elder, Lamb said she rarely used her desktop computer at home. “I didn't want to bring the workplace home with me,” said Lamb, which is why she hardly ever turned on her home computer.

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Program

Clint Rosemont said he greatly appreciated the flexible nature of Digital Elders, the only Afro-Media Literacy professional development-training center in the nation. He said that its curriculum incorporates both computers and smart phone literacy.

“It wasn't one size fits all; tell me what you're interested in and [DE founder Shani Byard] worked it in. Of course, I wanted to conquer everything, but I came out of it with a reasonable understanding of Facebook. Its workable,” Rosemont said.

The Digital Elders also said they were able to increase their smart-phone savviness thanks to the course. This was a necessity for many of them, they said, due to the “texting savviness” of their grandchildren.

Unfortunately for Velma Union, 65, her grandchildren's savviness does not include correct spelling and grammar. “[Texting] used to drive me crazy at first because I didn't know what it was, but now, its because they cant spell. They spell nothing right,” she laughed.

Knowledge of Skype is also necessary for Digital Elders with grandchildren. Rosemont had an account when his son lived in Stockholm for several years, but he later deactivated it when his son returned to the United States “Now that he's in New York and got a little girl, he wants me to get back on Skype so I can be kept up-to-date and we can interact that way,” said Rosemont.

Perhaps the biggest takeaways for these Digital Elders were the intangibles. Many reported that DE’s two-day, 15-hour intensive class increased knowledge base, made them more receptive to learning something new, and gave them greater self-confidence about venturing onto the Internet.

Union praised Byard and the DE experience: “Everybody got on the same page--everyone was wonderful. Now, I can blog, I can do things I couldn't do before. I know pretty much where to go [on the Internet] to find what I need, how to download it.”

A pastor and author of Is The Church The Church, [], Union said she started working on a second book since taking the DE course.

Writing Life Stories, Beating Depression

Peggy Powell, 76, has enrolled in a life-writing class at a senior center near her home. She said she uses her newfound digital confidence to venture onto the Internet to help her fact-check her work. “I'm proud of myself,” she said.

Powell added, “You can say, okay I was involved in the Watts Rebellion, was it '65 or '66? And I can now go on the Internet and--oh yeah, it was '65, because I do like history -- and the people in the [life-writing] class -- everybody has their own approach. But I did mine chronologically, so sometimes you have to go back and try to remember -- you know what you did, or what you thought or experienced, but when was that in terms of what was going on in the rest of the world, or in the city?”

Participants also mentioned that a bond had developed between them.

Union emphasized that the class was helpful “because when I saw people who were in just as bad a shape as I was in [regarding digital literacy], that made me feel real good.”

Denise Davidson, 53, commented that DE was almost like a support group “coming together with people of the same interests. We can share and bounce [ideas] off one another, get motivated to do things.”

In addition, Davidson said simply interacting with the older participants enhanced her DE experience: “Learning from their wisdom, gaining that knowledge; the way society is now we don't value our elders and they have so much to offer.”

And a program like DE can help keep the blues away. A 2009 report entitled “Internet Use and Depression Among the Elderly,” by the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies, found that Internet usage by seniors could be an inexpensive way to reduce depression among that demographic by expanding their “social interactions, reducing their loneliness, and giving them access to health information and treatment,” among other things.

Digital Tips for Working With Elders

The Digital Elders shared what they considered to be “best practices” for teaching digital literacy to older adults.

“Seniors need patience; don't give us too much on the plate,” admonished Powell.

“We need understanding,” she went on, “so we are on solid ground, so we can go forward. So many things to do, people who are proficient know all of that; just show me one thing. They jump around, it’s hard to remember, if you don't use it all the time.”

Union agreed, adding, “I hate too many options; [give me] just one.”

An enduring concern about the growth of the Internet over the last three decades has been possible isolation and alienation among users. That might explain Assata Umoja's slight hesitancy to embrace social media and digital literacy, even though she completed the DE class.

“My concern is where people become so involved with technology until they lose human contact, and I think that's a big mistake,” said Umoja, 58.

She went on, “I think that ways have to be found, not just with those that are born in the digital age, but with those who have caught up with the digital age, to make sure that we create the places and the spaces where we maintain that emotional contact with one another. Its important to make sure the balance is there.”

“The important thing is for human beings to control the technology, and not the other way around, because the technology has a will of its own and it will control the people if the people don't control it,” remarked Clint Rosemont. “But the only way you can control it is you have to understand it.”

Assata's mantra is that “the greatest computer that ever was and ever will be is in here,” she said, pointing to her head. “No matter how much technology you learn, always remember that your brain is your greatest of all computers.”

Thandisizwe Chimurenga wrote this article through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. For more on the digital divide for seniors, see New America Media’s series “Ethnic Elders Online.”