By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Twelve seniors a week meet at the Wally Choice Center to brush up on their tech skills. Some want to use their smartphones or laptops for exercise videos, or to listen to music, while others want to download apps for horticulture tips, recipes or to call ride-sharing services, Anne Lippel, Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place president, said.
Montclairian Joan Moses is among them. She wanted to learn how to access digital coupons, and how to share photos of her loved ones with family members. So Moses attends a weekly class offered by Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place to learn how to use her smartphone beyond just receiving and placing calls.
Moses, who got her smartphone from her daughter more than two years ago, said the seniors are a little hesitant at times experimenting with what their phones can do.
“It’s not our generation,” she said.
Gateway aims to help seniors get over hurdles like that. Organizers describe it as a “nonprofit senior center for our digital world.”
A $10,000 grant from Partners for Health — a foundation that invests in programs that strengthens health and wellness — is funding Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place’s Campaign for Digital Connectivity, specifically its SmartSeniors/SmartPhones pilot project.
Gateway was conceived when the pandemic hit in 2020, and when most people pivoted from offices or classrooms to video calls and remote work. Lippel and other senior advocates discovered a digital divide among seniors who lacked not only the technology, but also technology know-how.
During the lockdown, Gateway, through a phone and mail survey, sought to assess how many seniors lacked computers or smartphones and internet access. The findings went beyond simply what devices respondents had. Some had smart TVs, but didn’t have connectivity. Some had laptops, but with no cameras. Many who did have smartphones or tablets didn’t know how to navigate or access the internet or apps.
Through Laptop Upcycle, the Montclair nonprofit that refurbishes laptops for those in need, Gateway was able to get more than 15 laptops to seniors. Hot spots were offered through the Montclair Public Library to those who didn’t have internet, Lippel said.
Over the last two years, many more seniors bought smartphones and laptops on their own, but need help navigating and accessing all they can offer, she said.
In 2021, Gateway sought incorporation as a nonprofit and began fundraising efforts through its board of directors, individual donors, local foundations and family funds, and before the Partners for Health grant had nearly $18,000, of which $9,000 came from developer David Placek.
MGAP hired a senior project specialist, Anya Maria Mayans, who has been working with older adults on digital inclusion for the past decade. Most recently, Mayans was a state coordinator as part of a national initiative in Uruguay called Plan Ibirapita. The program provided tablets to 200,000 lower income retirees, and instruction on the use of tablets and smartphones, Gateway organizers said.
Now Mayans, a Montclair resident, is running the pilot program for seniors at Gateway.
The program creates “pods” of six seniors who are paired up with volunteer peer coaches trained in human-centered design.
“Volunteers will establish relationships with older residents who are reluctant or untutored users of technology and help them adopt the technology skills they need,” Gateway organizers said in an announcement of the pilot project.
Trust between the clients and the coaches is crucial in order to address the needs and concerns of those navigating the digital world, Mayans said.
Moses said her coach, Carla McClain, has been “beyond patient and very informative.” She said classes are individualized because “everyone of us has different needs” as to what they want to learn.
Some older adults are distrustful of downloading apps to their phones or even accessing the internet on them. The students are also getting lessons in what suspicious activity looks like and how to avoid scams, Mayans said.
The hesitation is waning the more they learn. For instance, the seniors were amazed when they discovered how to set up a playlist of jazz music on their phones, Moses said.
But in order to grow the program and provide one-on-one coaching, Gateway needs more peer coaches. Organizers hope to expand the pilot program to 25 seniors.
“We are looking for tech-savvy people aged 55 and over who are looking to give back to the Montclair community. Volunteers should be particularly competent with digital tools and enjoy helping others use them. They should also be service-oriented, have considerable patience and be good learners themselves,” Mayans said.
“Digital competency and connectivity are paramount to our mission because seniors who are ‘unreachable’ are at risk in this society,” Lippel said. “Our immediate focus is on closing this access and competence gap.”
Mayans said that the hesitancy some seniors feel will soon turn to empowerment. Moses is already on her way. She said next week, she plans to ask McClain how they can send a text to emergency personnel to get help. And she hopes that one day when she has gained enough knowledge, she can give to the program and become a peer coach herself.