The Internet is often considered the realm of the young. But in the U.S., people over 65 are one of the fastest-growing groups to go online, and social media usage among seniors has soared.
A program in Washington, D.C., is designed to bring more seniors online, especially those who are socially isolated.
The Connecting to Community training program is sponsored by the AARP Foundation in partnership with the nonprofit Older Adults Technology Services, Comcast and the D.C. social services organization Family Matters of Greater Washington.
It puts the latest digital tools in the hands of low-income, older Americans to help them combat loneliness and develop social connections through social media and other online offerings.
The program's pilot run just finished in Washington, D.C., and while the free iPad tablets the students received were brand new, some of the people using them were born decades before Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were out of diapers.
Learning The Tools And Privacy Basics
The students, all on limited incomes, have been attending class a couple of times each week, with instruction from volunteer trainers. They've learned to use touch screens and to navigate social media like Facebook and Twitter.
But what comes naturally to a 20-year-old can take time for someone three times that age. "I was trying to take a picture, and I ended up taking a picture of myself," says student Doris Bagley at a recent class. "I want to know how the heck that happened."
Ruby Lester gets nervous when she sees unexpected pop-ups on the screen. "That scares me, and I just cut my computer off," she says.
And Kenneth Butler has had a difficult time using his tablet's camera function. "I have, essentially, tremors," he says. "When I take pictures, I [shake] so much that I don't get a clear picture."
The classes are designed to help the participants sort through those issues. Another important component of the Connecting to Community program, explains instructor Sheila Poole, is privacy.
"When we talk about your privacy and your settings on the social media, you need to know how to decide what you want people to be able to see, what you don't want people to be able to see, what you possibly don't even want to put on," Poole tells the class.
With this group, the touch-screen technology has come easier than learning the dos and don'ts of social networking, Poole says.
"We show them ... what your settings should be like for privacy," she says. "[We] teach them how to spot spam items and [that] if you feel uncomfortable about doing something, don't do it. We let them know these are your brakes, just like in your car."
The Young Kids 'Don't Have Nothing On Me'
But soon these novices to the digital world are cruising down the information highway — some at top speed.
James Reese, 69, is a poster child for the pilot program. He's using his iPad to find some old friends — even childhood sweethearts. He's listening to online versions of his favorite blues performers and joining discussion groups about his glaucoma.
"I even twit now — I'm on Twitter," Reese says and laughs. The tools he's learned to use here, he says, fill "a lot of void that was in my life, you know, that I used to do when I was young."
"Let me tell you, I would recommend [it] to every senior citizen who can. ... It's a way of life now," he continues. "At my age, at 69, I feel great just knowing that I'm up on technology so I can look at like the young kids now. ... They don't have nothing on me!"
"We're not seeing people afraid anymore," Poole says of the students. "The fears are gone."
Last Friday, 55 senior Connecting to Community students gathered for a graduation ceremony. Now that the D.C. program is over, the participants are expected to continue to keep in touch with each other — online and in person.
"We are seniors, but we never get too old to learn," noted one participant.
A similar program for senior citizens in Sioux Falls, S.D., continues until March. The AARP Foundation and Older Adults Technology Services will then evaluate the program to determine if it should be launched elsewhere.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Connecting to Community is the name of a pilot program intended to make older folks more comfortable online. It's a collaboration of several nonprofits. NPR's Art Silverman sat in on a few classes here in Washington.
SHEILA POOLE: Welcome, everyone back. Thank you so much for always being here and for being so prompt.
ART SILVERMAN, BYLINE: The tablet computers being used here are brand new. The people using them aren't. Some were around for decades before Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were even out of diapers. These senior citizens, all of them living on limited incomes, are starting to navigate their way into social media. They've been given free iPads with this goal in mind - get to know touch screen technology to combat loneliness.
But what comes naturally to a 20-year-old takes time for someone three times that age.
DORIS BAGLEY: 'Cause I was trying to take a picture and I end up taking a picture of myself. And I want to know how in the heck that happened.
RUBY LESTER: Using this, a face comes up and says: Wiki, Wiki, and it scares me and I just cut my computer off.
KENNETH BUTLER: I have, essentially, tremors. When I take pictures, I be shaking so much that I don't get a clear picture.
SILVERMAN: That's Kenneth Butler and before him, Ruby Lester and Doris Bagley. They come to classes a couple times a week to sort through these kinds of issues.
Another lesson taught at Connecting to Community is privacy. Instructor Sheila Poole.
POOLE: When we talk about your privacy and your settings on the social media, you need to know how to decide what you want people to be able to see, what you don't want people to be able to see, what you possibly don't even want to put on.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm not going to put anything on there that anyone else can't read. You know, nobody else...
SILVERMAN: It isn't so hard for these senior citizens here in Washington to learn touch screen technology. What's harder is learning the dos and don'ts of social networking.
POOLE: We show them the correct way and what your settings should be like for privacy. Teach them how to spot spam items and if you feel uncomfortable about something, then don't do it. We let them know that these are your brakes, just like in your car.
SILVERMAN: And soon, these novices to the digital world are cruising down the information highway, some at top speed.
POOLE: We're not seeing people afraid anymore. The fears are gone.
JAMES REESE: I even twit now.
REESE: I'm on Twitter.
SILVERMAN: That's James Reese. He's 69 years old. He's using his iPad to find some old, old, friends - even some childhood sweethearts. And he's tuning into online versions of his favorite blues performers, joining discussion groups about his glaucoma. He's the poster child for this pilot program.
REESE: It just fills a lot of void that was in my life, you know, that I used to do when I was young.
SILVERMAN: Fills the void. I think of technology as something for young people, but it sounds like its come along just at the right time for you at this time in your life.
REESE: But, you know, let me tell you, I would recommend it to every senior citizen who can. The computer...
REESE: ...it's a way of life now. I feel at my age - at 69, I feel great just knowing that I'm up on technology just like the young kids now. You know, so they don't have nothing on me.
REESE: I thank God for that.
POOLE: We, seasoned citizens of the District of Columbia, have taken steps to ensure that we keep up with growth by being a part of the technology craze...
SILVERMAN: Last Friday, in a ceremony at Shiloh Baptist Church, 55 senior citizens graduated from Connecting to Community, students like Thelma Pugh.
THELMA PUGH: We had a wonderful time, lots of fun. We learned a lot of websites that we did not know existed.
SILVERMAN: Even though the program is over now, the participants are expected to continue to keep in touch with each other online and in person.
PUGH: And we made connections with people we didn't know existed.
SILVERMAN: Art Silverman, NPR News.
PUGH: We had a great time. Thank you.
BLOCK: If you are a senior, we want to know something about your experience with technology. How has your relationship with tech changed as you've aged? Please, tell us in an email.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Go to NPR.org. And way at the bottom of the page, click on the little, tiny word: Contact - it's in gray on the right hand side. Again, tell us how your relationship with technology has changed as you've aged.
BLOCK: Put the words: Seniors and Tech in the subject line. Or you can tweet us @npralltech. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.