Getting up to speed on tech

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Carol Sorgen

Kathleen Young (left) teaches Cathy Milando how to use an iPad at one of the technology classes offered at the Seven Oaks Senior Center. Community college programs and retirement communities also offer classes to help older adults learn not just the mechanics of their devices, but also how to keep connected via social media, Skype and email.
Photo by Christopher Myers

Can’t get to your granddaughter’s ballet recital in person? Wonder what happened to your best friend from high school? Want to start your Christmas shopping?

It’s all there waiting for you, thanks to the world of technology.

“If you can think of it, it will be on your iPad,” said Cathy Milando, 77, a Perry Hall resident. Thanks to technology classes offered at the Seven Oaks Senior Center, Milando has joined the growing numbers of older adults taking advantage of all that today’s technology can offer — from staying in touch with family, to ordering groceries online, to making new friends.

Unlike Milando, who is relatively new to the cyberworld, Charlestown Retirement Community resident Ann MacKay was first introduced to computers in 1985. She is so proficient and enthusiastic about technology that she leads Charlestown’s Apple Users Group, which has been offering monthly classes to residents for the past four years.

Even though MacKay says she has been “immersed” in technology for the past 30 years, she continues to learn and stretch herself — whether it’s about new products (from iPhones to iPads to Apple watches) or new ways to use technology (she’s an avid blogger). 

Making it work for others

And she enjoys helping others get the most out of technology as well. “Most of the people who attend our classes are beginners,” said MacKay, who is 73. “Some have come to it on their own, others have received ‘hand-me-down’ phones or tablets from their kids and need to know how to use them.”

While many of the new users find the technology daunting at first, MacKay is quick to offer encouragement. “Technology is just a tool,” she tells them. “There’s a lot of entertainment and information you can find online, but you don’t have to use it for everything. Find your balance and make technology work for you.”

Experts on aging agree that technology can be a boon to older adults, many of whom, like Cathy Milando, have lost a spouse and may be feeling lonely and isolated.

“Being online — from checking email to visiting Facebook —can give people a way to stay in touch with their family and friends,” said Jean Coppola, associate professor of information technology and director of the Gerontechnology Program at Pace University in New York.

A social outlet

As Milando and MacKay illustrate, being online and even using social media is not just for the young.

Take the popular site Facebook. According to the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of online American adults between the ages of 50 and 64 use Facebook, as do 48 percent of those 65 and older.

Facebook may be the most popular social media site for those over 50 (though Milando admits she’s not a fan, at least not yet), but it’s not the only one. You can also find older adults on such sites as Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Engaging in hobbies online — such as scrapbooking, watching videos and playing games — can also offer a greater sense of well-being, improve quality of life and keep the brain active, according to Coppola. 

There are even social networking sites like Stitch (www.stitch.net) and Tapestry (www.tapestry.net), designed to help people over 50 meet new friends, find a new romance, or discover a new activity.

Kathleen Young teaches technology-related classes at Seven Oaks senior center, part of the Baltimore County Department of Aging. She offers a variety of subjects, from what you should know before buying a new smartphone or tablet, to how to use it once you have it, sending and receiving email, watching YouTube, and selling on eBay, to name just a few.

“Many of the individuals who attend the classes are not aware of all the capabilities of their devices,” said Young. She noted that so many Seven Oaks regulars now have smartphones and tablets that the center has replaced its computer lab with iPads.

Learning where they live

Technology is so popular among residents of Roland Park Place (RPP) that staff members there decided to offer monthly onsite “tech talks.”  

“Some of our residents have physical challenges, such as poor eyesight, that make it difficult for them to use some of the devices they own,” said media specialist John Sargent. “Many also have a hard time realizing that technology can help with daily tasks and enrich their life.”

Antoinette Peirson, an RPP resident, was reluctant to learn to use a computer because of her visual impairment, but decided to give it a try.

“First, I was able to get an email address,” she said. “And then I asked what else this machine can do. My teacher pulled up a program called Printshop and made a birthday card for my husband. I was hooked!” 

So hooked, in fact, that Peirson now makes posters for RPP’s different departments. “It’s just great!” she said.

Community colleges and libraries

The Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) also offers technology instruction for those 60 and over through its Senior Programs Division. Classes range from basic introductory courses on word processing and spreadsheets, to using social media and apps for smartphones.

Most of CCBC’s senior classes are offered at either its Hunt Valley or Owings Mills campuses. But this spring, the school is collaborating with the Baltimore County Public Libraries (BCPL) to offer training on Chromebooks — a convertible laptop/tablet that is designed to be used primarily while connected to the Internet.

All BCPL branches will have Chromebooks available to use for up to two hours in the library or to check out for seven days. CCBC will roll out the Chromebook classes in April at the Hereford, Perry Hall and Arbutus library branches. The five-session class will cost $35 for those 60 and older; $45 for those under 60.

“We want to reach those who may be hesitant to learn about technology and/or those who do not have the financial means to have access to their own computers or devices,” said CCBC Director of Senior Programs Stephan Edmonston.

For more information, see www.ccbcmd.edu/Programs-and-Courses/Life-Enrichment/Seniors/Computers.aspx or call (443) 840-1685.

For Cathy Milando, learning to use her iPad was daunting at first — “At 77, I have to ask questions more than once!” — but advises others that “it’s good to come out of your comfort zone.”

Milando uses her iPad as a camera when she travels, creates jigsaw puzzles out of family photos, sends birthday cards from a greeting card app and, like many of us, watches funny videos of dogs and cats on YouTube. “That really brightens my day!”

If you’re unable to attend classes in person or prefer to learn in the comfort of your own home, check out the AARP Academy at https://aarptek.aarp.org/ for a catalog of interactive videos and webinars.