BY WENDY SCHUMAN
SENIOR PLANET – Bringing seniors together in a changing world
Ever since the pandemic changed our lives abruptly in early March, our world has increasingly moved online. My husband and I are over 70 – and we want to limit unnecessary in-person contact. So, we’ve had to start using Instacart to order groceries, talking to our grandkids on FaceTime, and having meetings on Zoom. Since we’re trying to avoid hospital or urgent care visits, we know that pretty soon we’ll have to get comfortable with telemedicine to consult our doctors remotely. Online banking is next. My head is spinning!
Now more than ever, it’s essential for older adults to be online and to understand how to use their computers, phones, and other devices to stay healthy and connected. But it’s not easy. In fact, it can be extremely frustrating.
Enter Senior Planet—a 7-year-old tech hub for older adults that’s done revolutionary work in helping seniors get tech-savvy. Founded by social activist Tom Kamber, Senior Planet is the flagship program of OATS (Older Adults Technology Services), which Kamber started in 2005.
Exuberant and energetic, Kamber, 53, founded both OATS and Senior Planet with a social vision. “It was never about finding a bunch of vulnerable old people and filling their brains up with computer skills,” he explains. “It was more about what could happen if we give older people more empowerment and engagement with the world through the digital skills that were available.”
Teaching technology to seniors was in the service of a social mission: to counteract social isolation and to help them develop new skills in the process. “We really weren’t a bunch of computer nerds trying to tell people how to resize their desktop icons or play with their file systems or whatever. We were social activists. We built a powerful mousetrap to engage older people and help them learn to use technology and also fit it into their lives, become more comfortable, more confident, be respected, and activate themselves to use it for some purpose.”
Call out: Now more than ever, it’s essential for older adults to be online and to understand how to use their computers, phones, and other devices to stay healthy and connected.
They developed a methodology to get absolute beginners online and using technology. Courses were adapted to the needs of seniors, such as keeping classes shorter (bathroom breaks!) and meeting a few times a week to aid memory. Staff and volunteers were trained in this methodology.
Senior Planet has expanded to four computer- and WiFi-equipped Centers across the country: New York City; Plattsburgh, NY; Denver, CO; and Palo Alto, CA. It also gives training at 165 locations over six states, most of which are “partner sites” (libraries, senior centers, and community centers). Senior Planet trainers have taught in assisted living and nursing homes– “Anywhere where somebody has a computer room or a space for enabled WiFi tablets, we’ll go and teach there,” says Kander.
There are classes in everything from setting up email to social networking to starting an online business—all free to anyone over 60.
Face-to-face Senior Planet has been a huge success—attracting older people from diverse backgrounds who learn together and get to know each other, forming friendships, and gaining essential skills. More than 30,000 seniors have benefited from engaging with Senior Planet, whether that involved taking a class, attending an event, or visiting the website, among other touchpoints.
But then coronavirus struck, and everything changed. Senior Planet has had to adapt to the new reality of social distancing when most Americans—especially seniors—are confined to their homes. They’ve done a remarkable job of moving their programs online to both live, interactive groups and recorded classes.
I spent a few hours today on the Senior Planet’s website, exploring their virtual offerings. I “met” new people (Hi Gail and Dave from Colorado!) in a Daily Virtual Gathering, where we had a tutorial on how to use the ride-share app Lyft; took chair yoga with Tina in New York; and learned the ins and outs of Zoom with tech expert Bre along with 70 other people. If I’d had time, I could have joined the virtual Book Club, discussed my favorite movies, and read an article on how COVID-19 affects Medicare—from the comfort of my home.
Next on my to-do list—Ready Set Bank: Online Banking Made Easy, a tool created with Capital One that teaches seniors how to bank online – a process that’s become more important than ever.
Senior Planet has also published the Coronavirus Resource Guide — which includes Virtual Events, the Stuck-at-Home Guide, and important information on COVID-19. These offerings are updated daily.
I recently interviewed executive director Tom Kamber via Zoom about the evolution of Senior Planet and how the program is adapting to the new stay-at-home world. (The following interview is condensed and edited.)
GRAND: When we set up this meeting, it was kind of a different world, and now it’s like we’re on a different planet!
Kamber: It’s been the most insane turn of events.
GRAND: I can tell from other interviews you’ve done that you are a very upbeat person. I’m hoping you give us a sense of uplifting optimism.
Kamber: I am a relentless optimist. If you want optimism, you’ve come to the right place. I’m really gratified by watching the whole world kind of coming together to try to grapple with a crisis like this and being really inspired by it. I see hundreds of people serving food to each other, coming up with home-delivered meals. The city’s not really set up for that. They’re having to tell people, “Hold on a minute. We’re trying to figure out how to handle the public health issues associated with such a thing.” Everybody’s trying to kind of sort out what to do. But the thing that’s really been gratifying for me is to see the level of desire that people have to help each other and to come together around this. It makes me feel really uplifted and really optimistic about the world in the long run. But, of course, then you get the crisis and the consequences and real people are really dying and it’s really jarring and shocking to hear it.
GRAND: How have things changed since you started the program originally?
Kamber: When I started in 2004, only 26% of people over the age of 65 had ever been on the internet. Today, 15 years later, it’s kind of reversed. About 75% of seniors have actually been on the internet, but still, 25% have not, which is kind of staggering. In New York City, just as an example, 42% of seniors are not on the internet at home. They do not have internet activity in their homes.
Getting Internet Access
GRAND: What can people do about internet access, since Senior Planet centers are closed for now?
Kamber: We’re actually doing phone calls for people to coach them through setting up the internet at home. So for people that are trying to learn how to do that, if you’ve got the patience, we’ve got the patience–all of our trainers are calling hundreds of people a week right now, and they are reaching out to them and saying, how can we help you get set up at home with the right system so that you can communicate with your family?
Senior Planet has a user-friendly article called “How to Get Online” with many ways to access lower cost or even free internet at home. https://seniorplanet.org/stuck-at-home-guide-get-online/
We’re working with Verizon now. Thousands of Verizon staff want to volunteer. We were actually working with them to come to our centers and do volunteerism. We’re trying to shift over that model now so people can do it online. We’re still in the first couple of weeks of it. So we’re figuring out who’s coming and who’s going.
Our own staff is doing this as well [as well as some other companies that want to get involved], where people are doing the calls and offering companionship and engagement that way.
How do you decide what programs to offer?
Kamber: Our programming breaks into three different kinds of programs. Level One is a very personalized version, which are typically one-on-one coaching sessions. And we typically use volunteers who are very carefully trained and supervised. We’re with you on anything that you need to know. People show up all the time with a device that’s still wrapped in the shrink wrapping. They’ll come in and say, I got this for my birthday. I don’t even know what it is.
A very common question is that people have is photographs that are stuck on their smartphones. They can’t figure out how to download them and get them off. They want to get a new phone, but they don’t want to lose all the old pictures.
I don’t think I could overestimate the value of people’s memories. People are coming to us with us this gift, like it’s the crown jewels, saying, “Please help me not lose these.” So our volunteers help people get this stuff off their phones and put them on a thumb drive and back them up on the web.
Level Two— We have a lot of lectures and informational workshops. Right now, everybody’s talking about Zoom. So we have lectures on it to demystify and put it in human terms. We try to get away from the engineer to speak. Those lectures are not usually just about technology. They’re often about what to do with it.
We’re doing lectures on online banking right now, managing your money online, staying safe online. We have dozens of videos about this that we developed together with Capital One a few years ago in English and Spanish. It’s a really good resource, but now, of course, everybody’s desperate for that information. So we’re doing live lectures and workshops on that.
We just finished one today on Telemedicine. How do you prepare for it?
You know what a normal doctor visit is, but what does it mean when the doctor is coming through your phone? What kind of device should you be using and how do you make sure that your neighbor’s not watching you talk about your private health information? It’s important to have people be able to ask questions and get informed. It’s a brave new world of this stuff, but it’s also a bit riskier for people and it can be very frustrating. So we’re doing these one-session workshops, and every single calendar quarter, all of our courses reset.
In June, January, April, July, October, we’ll have a whole bunch of multi-week courses that start the beginning of each quarter. And they’re all over the country. So anywhere you go, everything is centralized in terms of the programming.
The 5- and 10-week courses are kind of like language learning courses, but learning the language of technologies. It’s skills building. They’re on three different platforms. So you can learn on the PC, the iPad, or the Chromebook, and you can learn the basics in any of five languages. You can learn in English, Spanish, of course, Russian, Chinese, and we happen to have Bengali.
If you wanted to learn the absolute basics because you’ve been standing on the platform for years watching the technology train drive by and you’ve decided to step onto the train—this is an opportunity for an absolute beginner to do it in a really low-stress cost-free, highly organized and very professionalized environment.
Keeping in Touch with Grandchildren
GRAND: Social connection is so important to seniors. Social isolation is a really big problem. So how can we keep connected now that we can’t be there in person? For example, I’m cut off from seeing my grandchildren.
Kamber: There are a couple of things that are really critical. First of all, grandchildren are not a simple demographic. The older ones certainly have been on technology communicating and using all these devices and tools typically for quite a while. It used to be that you would just show up and your grandkids were there and you’d do their thing, and you may have thought like, I never need to learn how to use to do a video call because like my grandkids live a mile away.
Today you can’t do that now, right? So what happens if you suddenly have to learn the technology? Senior Planet gives you a place where right now you can go online, we’re actually teaching video classes on how to do all this stuff.
Number one, in order to communicate with your grandkids, you may need to be online. You can use a smartphone, but many people don’t have smartphones either. There’s a fairly large number that is just audio phone-based. So if you want to set that up, we’ll help you do that and you can use a volunteer or you can watch one of our instructional programs, or else we’re just starting to distribute materials like tip sheets. So different people learn in different ways. Secondly, though, just the technology doesn’t get you far enough. In fact, it’s only about, I would say it’s maybe 25% of the effort.
Being an Effective Communicator
The other part of it is learning how to be an effective communicator and an effective family member through the medium of the technology. Because technology really shapes how people perceive us and how we communicate. It alters the dynamic a little bit.
It’s better when you develop some of the social skills around how to communicate online. So one of the things I think is important with grandkids today is finding ways to create, what I would think of as successful or “sticky” interaction. When I say sticky, I mean the person’s going to come back for another one when you finished the first one. So, a few things to keep in mind.
Keep it short: First of all, keep everything a lot shorter than you normally would. You should probably be the first person to sign off on the call before the younger person says, okay, well I’m going to go back to whatever I was doing. If they say that you’ve probably hung on for too long. These video calls and digital interactions tend to be in bite-sized chunks. So do a 5-minute or 10-minute thing every day or two, but try not to do a 45-minute long one.
Lead with engaging stuff: So for younger people, they don’t want you to call up and say like, have you been reading about coronavirus on the internet–that’s your conversation stopper right now! You can relate to younger people cause they’re all going stir crazy. So, what are you watching online? Did you find any good Netflix shows that you want to recommend? Have you seen anything funny? And because time is so short and the video creates that distance, maintaining a certain level of emotional levity and engagement is really helpful for people.
GRAND: I noticed that you help people start their small businesses and keep them, keep them going. How can that be affected by what’s currently going on? Are you still able to do that?
Kamber: We are going to be doing continuing that course. I’m not sure it’s going to come up in the first round or the second, but it’s on the list. I don’t see any reason why any of the content that we deliver can’t go through the video format that we’re developing right now. The entrepreneurship courses to us are very important, partly because, they are economic lifelines for people, and they are also creative lifelines for people. Many seniors that are coming to us with entrepreneurial ideas not necessarily trying to buy a mega yacht or become a billionaire. They’re really looking to do something that is a passion that they’ve had for years, but they’re looking for an opportunity to actually put it together as a marketable project.
Our curriculum helps them do that. Many of those programs are home-based businesses anyway. There’s a gentleman that I know who does greeting cards. He used to work for Hallmark. He actually invented the African American market of greeting cards. He’s African American and he helped kind of create this whole business. And he’s a really talented artist. So he started developing his own cards and selling them online.
Joining the Senior Planet Movement
There are two ways to come at Senior Planet. One is just simply a consumer of all the wonderful things we do. And you don’t have to be a member to do that and you don’t have to be a member to come to the centers or take our classes or do any of that stuff. But a lot of people have told us over the years that they want to help us. We’re a social change nonprofit. We’re not just a training organization. We’re really about helping to change what’s going on out there in aging. And we can’t do that by just relying on government funding or foundation funding. Those guys are going to fund us for a class or a course or something specific. But when it comes to the impact that we’re talking about and measuring that impact, we need people with us.
The participants started becoming activists. They wanted to go to Albany with us. They wanted to go to City Hall with us and push for better programming for aging and for technology and for funding for projects like what we were doing. Hundreds of people started coming to these hearings, so the membership grew out of that, grew out of the activism. What we’ve done is create a model, like a tier of engagement, a kind of a threshold where you can sign up to become a member. I think we’re suggesting $15 a year right now. It’s really whatever people want to give– if you give a dollar, you’re a member.
Taking Care of Yourself
GRAND: Do you have any other words of wisdom and solace for those of us who are stuck home, which is mostly everybody?
Kamber: What I’m seeing from people who seem to be succeeding in handling it pretty well, is that people are creating a kind of a daily routine, a new routine.
Everything has changed at least for the time being. So it’s an opportunity to recreate our commitment to ourselves, reshape that, and reallocate our personal time and resources. The morning routine of getting up and then making your bed. And that’s a really important piece of advice! People are getting up and getting their exercise, working on home exercises, which in some cases, by the way, are better than what we might do in the gym. It turns out when you’re at home you’d work your core really well.
A lot of us are getting more creative with things like cooking — we’re cooking at home so we’re healthier. We’re not going to have as many steps each day necessarily. So we’re going to be needing to be a lot more careful and thoughtful about what we eat. That intentionality of taking this moment as a break from the way we’ve always done things – it’s a kind of a jarring and a very real forced reconfiguration of your time.
A lot of people seem to be finding a silver lining in some of this. I think I would encourage people to try to look for that. And of course, also to use all of these social resources and technology resources to stay safe. You know, even if you are observing best practices, mental health is a big part of this success for people.
If you’re not able to maintain your social contact and your physical activity within the home, you’re going to start to struggle. Many of us are going to start to struggle with depression, and that’s often underappreciated and untreated and unrecognized. So I think for people to take extra care of themselves psychologically by doing things that they know feed their psychological health, such as a daily conversation with a friend.
We have a lot of lectures and informational workshops. Right now, everyone’s talking about Zoom. So we have lectures on it to demystify it and put it in human terms.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – WENDY SCHUMAN
Wendy Schuman is a proud grandmom and freelance writer who makes her home in West Orange, NJ. She is a former editor of Parents Magazine and Beliefnet.com. Wendy and her husband help the new generation of college grads in Millennials in Wonderland. To learn more about Grad Life Choices, their pro bono coaching program, click here.