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Teens Help Seniors Bridge High-Tech Generational Gap

  • Faiza Elmasry

Younger people usually learn from the knowledge and experience of their elders but technology has reversed that tradition, especially when it comes to learning about high-tech devices and the Internet. That's the case in Maryland, where a technology workshop for seniors is taught by teens and even younger instructors, who've grown up in the digital age.

Teaching technology, learning patience

When Myra Stafford signed up for the workshop, she had one goal in mind. The 73-year-old wanted to learn how to use her iPad.

“My daughter gave it to me. She’s been long waiting for me to use it,” she said.

Her daughter won't have to wait too long because Stafford is learning fast.

“I’m more confident today than I was before," Stafford said. "Working with young people makes it wonderful because that's all they know, and they didn’t make me feel that I was old or dumb.”

Eleven-year-old Zhion Perkins is Stafford’s teacher.

“You have to be very, very patient, you know, because some of them might not know as well as others,” he said. "I get excited with them. I go like, 'hey, you got it!.' We start clapping and hugging."

Life at 50 and beyond

This workshop is just one of the programs the 50+ Center offers older residents of Columbia, Maryland.

“It’s everything from QiGong and Tai Chi," Center director Meridy McCague explained. "We have a lot of programs where people just meet together to play cards or sewing circles.”

The 50+ Center added the SeniorTech workshop last year, after receiving a donation of several iPads from a local community organization. About 100 seniors have signed up for the classes since then.

“As people are aging, their worlds get a little smaller. Some of them can no longer drive, some of them don’t get out and make long trips to see their relatives," McCague said. "So it brings them back out into Facebook, and to Skype and just be able to communicate. They can do eveything, from ordering things from Amazon to ordering groceries, or meals.”

Senior economy

Teaching seniors about technology also benefits the economy, says career and retirement expert Kerry Hannon.

“We have a huge growing population over 60 that’s just expanding," she observed. "[That] offers an incredible opportunity to buy online, to search products they want to buy maybe not online, to research products they want to maybe buy not online. A third of the Internet users are over 50. As seniors get more excited about using technology, they’re going to the marketplace and buy it. So that’s a boom for economy right there.”

As people live longer, retirees may consider getting back into the workforce, and the Internet, Hannon says, is a valuable resource that helps them do that.

“It’s absolutely critical, if you’re looking for a job in today’s market and you’re over 50, you have to be up to speed with technology," she insisted. "There is no excuse. A paper resume is no longer a big thing. You need to have an online resume; you have to have a LinkedIn presence. That’s how you’re going to network. That’s how you’re going to find a job today.”

Looking for a second career

That’s Carlton Reidcalloway’s goal.

“When I was retiring in 1995, the computer world was coming in and I was going out," he recalled. "I didn’t think it was necessary for me to learn how to use the computer.”

Now, as he starts a second career as an actor, it is a necessity.

“You have to go on line for job interviews," he said. "Everything is done online now. So I had to get in touch with the new world. In fact I had a photo op last week and I wanted to send some pictures - photos; head shots, body shots, stuff like that to my agent and I didn’t know how to do it.”

Social skills and purpose

Workshop instructor Madison Lam, 17, showed him how. She’s getting something from the class, too.

“I’ve learned a lot on how to connect with people and work because I’m usually a shy person,” she said.

The benefits for the young teachers go beyond building social skills, says Safire Windley, with The Youth and Teen Center, which runs the program.

“I find in this day and age, our younger people are trying to explore how they can add value to life, just trying to find their way," said Windley. "They say, 'Wow, this is not a random old person. This is a person who doesn't know something and I have something, which is my skill set to teach them and that's going to add value to their life.' This is something where they’re needed and their skill set is valued and it gives them purpose.”

And there's a sense of accomplishment in bringing someone into the digital age.

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