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ELDERtech: Promoting Intergenerational Understanding

December 1, 2006
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Young and old venture through cyberspace together by Robert W. Christensen and Stephen M. Soreff, MD
BY ROBERT W. CHRISTENSEN AND STEPHEN M. SOREFF, MD ELDERtech: Promoting intergenerational understanding
Residents and teens explore the future and the past together Nursing home residents often face the problem of isolation along with issues of untapped creativity and a desire to relate their life stories. They often do not have much contact with their families. All too frequently, their children and their grandchildren live far away and rarely make visits. Moreover, the residents' living situations provide few opportunities to interact with young people, and youngsters are more than often reluctant to come to such facilities. Nursing home residents have immense creative talents that are not always utilized, and they have wonderful stories to tell that, for the most part, go untold. The computer, the Internet, and e-mail can offer solutions to many of these problems.

This article chronicles the unique partnership that Pierce Memorial Baptist Home in Brooklyn, Connecticut, has with local high schools in operating its ELDERtech program. Their story shows how teenage students are mentoring residents in computer skills and how, in turn, residents are teaching students about life.

The ELDERtech Program
What makes Pierce Memorial Baptist Home's ELDERtech program unique is that it not only introduces computers to its residents, but it also enlists high school students as mentors. The program's goals are to bridge the generation gap between young and old and to foster independence among residents through the use of the computer, the Internet, and e-mail.

Pierce Memorial Baptist Home, an 82-bed long-term care facility, was founded in 1950 when Amasa and Edna Pierce donated their family homestead to the American Baptist Churches of Connecticut to begin "a retirement home for elderly Baptist women." Today, it is home to both men and women from many different faith backgrounds. Six years ago, a retirement village was added, providing a continuum of services for the elderly from independent living through skilled nursing care.

In developing the ELDERtech program, Pierce Home drew on ideas from several resources. In their paper "Usable Computers for the Elderly: Applying Coaching Experiences," Laurie Kantner and Stephanie Rosenbaum note dexterity, vision, and memory as the most significant challenges to teaching seniors how to use the computer and list ways to counter these problems. Phil Shapiro's article "Computers Use and the Elderly" states that the Internet counters isolation by promoting a connection to the outside world. With regard to teens teaching nursing home residents, Pierce Home learned from the experiences of others. One of these was a program developed by the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service; the Health Care Financing Administration; and local 4-H Youth Technology Team leaders around the country. The lessons learned from these sources are that the benefits to seniors in learning computer skills include socialization, learning new skills, researching special interests, staying informed of current events, managing personal finances, developing online companionship, shopping, keeping in touch with family and friends, and assisting the homebound or disabled.

The Beaumont Foundation of America donated $18,600 worth of computer equipment to begin the ELDERtech program. Teen mentors come from local high schools, including Killingly High School and Woodstock Academy. The response from the local schools was heartening. Walter Signora, head guidance counselor at Killingly High School, says that he was delighted to have his students participate in ELDERtech, as it fits nicely into the school's new community service program. Al Cormier, chair of the guidance counseling department at Woodstock Academy, says, "Our students value community service, and this program with Pierce Home residents, supervised by administrators and staff, extends the service activities from which our students benefit."
Seniors and the Internet

According to a March 2004 Pew Internet & American Life Project report, "Older Americans and the Internet," 22% of Americans aged 65 and older use the Internet; this translates to about eight million people. The report further notes that the percentage of seniors who go online jumped by 47% between 2000 and 2004. Millions of people in their 60s and beyond have found that computers are not only useful for daily activities, from letter writing to games, but also for being in touch with their families. A quick Internet search reveals a growing number of senior Web sites providing information, links, and adventures.

Perhaps the standard-bearer Web site about seniors and computers is SeniorNet (www.seniornet.com). It contains discussion and chat areas, learning centers and course information, and living archives, among many other features. A recent homepage, for instance, lauded a SeniorNet-tested IBM Web Adaptation Technology software for those with visual or motor limitations that is free to SeniorNet members. Other Web pages that contain information about senior living issues are the federal government's Health and Human Services site (www.hhs.gov), and the Administration on Aging site (www.aoa.gov).