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Parenting Guide: Senior Living

The onset of COVID and the wide-ranging interruptions and upheaval it unceremoniously dropped on a global population meant that everyone had to adapt to a new normal, and fast. Suddenly, our worlds shrunk as loved ones, neighbors and daily routines were off-limits and feeling inaccessibly far away.

Quickly pivoting to digital avenues to both stay connected and tend to those daily needs that didn’t halt with the rest of the world when the pandemic began—doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, educational requirements and professional obligations, just to name a few—was challenging enough for those who were accustomed to utilizing technology as a part of their lives.

For the senior citizens who had never once used Zoom or tapped into telehealth’s remote options, the learning curve was a steep one and, for some, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in finding a shred of familiarity to hold onto and keep life going as close to normally as possible.

Fortunately, places like libraries and other information-providing services recognized the need for helping those who had previously resisted learning how to navigate always-evolving technology or had never found the time to learn internet basics—and suddenly had all the motivation and interest they needed to change that after it was obvious COVID was going to be settling in for a while.

“We don’t necessarily focus [our computer classes] just on seniors—they’re all-ages and for anyone who doesn’t feel like they’re internet-savvy—but you can assume a good number of older people need these kinds of classes because they didn’t grow up with them like younger generations did,” notes Erin Sullivan, director of marketing and PR for the Orange County Library System (OCLS), who adds that the library doesn’t track enrollees’ personal information to respect their privacy. “This includes things like computer basics, introduction to computers, how to use your mouse and keyboard, and the fundamentals of using the internet.”

It certainly wasn’t just the early days of the pandemic that inspired senior citizens to take the plunge and enroll in tech-education classes. Sullivan notes that, since this past January, OCLS has seen an uptick in participation for its how-to classes—to the tune of more than 710 people, as of the beginning of June.

Nicole Brown, the Office on Aging’s program manager, agrees, noting that the Office on Aging has “some computer/tech classes for seniors” on the horizon. It also coordinates low- or no-cost computer classes that pair “seniors with little knowledge of computers with a mentor” for individualized one-on-one lessons over eight sessions, or small-group tech-education classes led by a peer volunteer who keenly understands elderly students’ sticking points.

That desire to stay connected absolutely had some roots in fostering a sense of emotional closeness among loved ones who were forced to stay physically apart because of either distance or an abundance of caution to minimize transmission risk, allowing grandparents to preserve traditions and even create some new ones with their grandchildren.

These local trends are indicative of a greater one confirmed by the AARP, which reported in April 2021 that new research indicating “more older adults (44%) view tech more positively as a way to stay connected than they did before COVID-19. In addition, four out of five adults age 50-plus rely on technology to stay connected and in touch with family and friends.”

“Technology enabled older adults to better weather the isolation of the pandemic, from ordering groceries to telehealth visits to connecting with loved ones,” Alison Bryant, senior vice president of research at AARP, said in the press release accompanying last year’s findings.

The study also noted there were plenty of other stats suggesting that perhaps younger generations aren’t giving their elders enough credit for their willingness to embrace technology. In the first year of the pandemic alone, Americans 50 and older reported an increasing use of technology to connect with others: video chats saw a 45% boost; texting, 37%; emailing, 26%; and phones, 29%. Additionally, for the same age demographic, about half had never used video chats in 2019—but 70% had in 2020, with one in three respondents saying that video chats had become weekly occurrences.

Sullivan recounts one “purely anecdotal” story that especially illustrates the necessity in providing tech-education classes to senior citizens.

“We had asked people to write down why they visited the library or what they appreciated about the library during the pandemic,” Sullivan begins. “We had one woman who reached out to us and said that she used the library to read books to her grandchildren: They would pick out books together on the library’s website, she would check the books out and then they would get on Zoom together and she would read to them. Since she couldn’t visit her grandchildren and they couldn’t visit her, that was their way of staying connected during the pandemic.”