Students teach computer skills to older generation

Seniors often have to take the computer class four times before they're comfortable with technology.

Thirty senior citizens squeezed around a long table designed for about 20, the crush made tighter by canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. As late arrivals wriggled between others in search of a seat, snippets of conversation floated from the chatty crowd.

“I don’t have a computer. I don’t have any of that Google stuff,” one exasperated woman said. “Facebook? What’s that?” another asked loudly, to no one in particular. “It’s a program. It’s a computer program,” a man responded knowingly, displaying a confidence rarely seen in the 75-and-over age group when talk turns to laptops, PCs, iPads, smart phones and all that comes with them.

That’s why these seniors had gathered at the Hallmark, their assisted-living facility in Lower Manhattan. They wanted to begin the task of catching up with a technical world whose rapid-fire evolution has left much of America’s oldest generation isolated from its children, grandchildren, and tech-savvy friends.

“It’s so hard to do. But at least I’ve stopped crying,” said Roz Carlin, 92, speaking for many as she described breaking down in tears when she first tried using a computer. Like most of the students, Carlin initially resisted the technology until her daughter forced the issue by giving her an iPad.

Now, after mastering eMail, she was back to learn more.

Their teachers were students from New York’s Pace University, who earn credits participating in a program to bridge the gap created by the computer age.

“Let’s face it—20 percent of the population is going to be over 65 by 2050,” said Jean Coppola, a gerontologist and information technology professor at Pace who started the program after officials in Westchester County, north of New York City, asked the university to conduct a computer seminar for senior citizens in 2005.

It proved so popular that Coppola expanded it, and it has become a model for similar efforts nationwide. She now has more seniors clamoring for the seven-week course, at senior facilities in Manhattan and in Westchester, than she has students to teach them.

Like the seniors signing up for the once-a-week tutoring sessions, Coppola knows that it is best to look outside the family for someone to teach elders the art of double-clicking, dragging and dropping, eMailing, and ignoring spam that promises fabulous wealth or a free cruise.