The idea of seniors using computers is not new, and many have had exposure to this technology before entering a nursing home. But even if they have
never used a computer nor have any idea of what the Internet is, with guidance, they can enter the world of cyberspace. With a computer connected to the Internet and someone to assist with accessing e-mail and the Internet in general, new worlds of communication and information previously unknown to the resident are opened up.
This was an idea presented to the administration of a local nursing home in Lowell, Massachusetts, about four years ago by one of the authors (Dr. Patrick Scollin). Having become involved with D’Youville Senior Care, a not-for-profit long-term care facility sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa, while his mother was a resident, Scollin began to discuss the possibility of having residents become involved in an “Internet Boot Camp.” As a professor in the department of Community Health and Sustainability, School of Health and Environment, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Scollin found that teaching health profession students how to make the best use of computer technology made it seem only appropriate that he could also help the residents become members of cyberspace.
Through the generosity of a colleague, a computer was procured and donated to D’Youville, which already had Internet access within the facility. This one computer with an 18-inch monitor became the start of Scollin's Internet Boot Camp.
A dozen residents attended the first session where the concept was discussed; they were shown what the Internet was all about and how e-mail worked. This initial group became the first cyber campers at D’Youville. Yahoo e-mail accounts were started for each resident, and the family of each was given the resident's address and encouraged to pass it on to other family members and friends. Members of the activities department sent each resident an initial e-mail to get things started, and a connection was made with the local girls club to become the residents’ e-mail pen pals.
One afternoon a week Scollin would host the camp and help the residents with their e-mail. With only one computer, residents had to wait their turn, sometimes for an hour or more. They did so willingly. Scollin says that some could do their own typing, and for others he would be their scribe. A few of the original group eventually drifted away, but for the most part residents enjoyed the process of communicating with family and the pen pals through e-mail, and they attended the Wednesday sessions regularly. For some residents, this was their only means of communicating with grandchildren away at college or with children who live in other states where visits were not easy.
Coauthor Lisa Couture, foundation director at D’Youville, explains that residents enjoy this new way to communicate in part because it does not cost any money to keep in touch with family and friends—they save on stamps and the cost of placing long-distance telephone calls.
About a year into the program, with eight steady participants, Mary George, the director of D’Youville's Adult Day Health, asked about the possibility of having some of its clients join the camp, which resulted in four additional participants. The connection with family through e-mail became very apparent to one of the Adult Day Health participants. Although having lived in the United States for many years, most of her family members still live in Holland. She says that the ability to communicate with her sister and other family members through e-mail in Dutch and receive digital photos has added a new dimension to “staying in touch.”
Another resident with a great interest in aviation is helped to surf the Net for information on planes, while another looks for crochet patterns that can be printed out.
As the program continued, it became apparent that the single computer was not adequate. Only one resident could be served at a time, and there was little opportunity for them to explore other aspects of the computer. The residents were asking for more computers, as well as reading and audiovisual materials.
D’Youville has been fortunate in having very forward-thinking administrators at its helm. As a result of this, the D’Youville Foundation headed by Couture was founded in 2002, with the mission of building an endowment and raising money for projects that would be outside the facility's normal operation. Couture notes that D’Youville Foundation's goal is to uphold the legacy of St. Marguerite D’Youville and the mission of D’Youville Senior Care of providing compassionate care to frail adults and the elderly. The Foundation seeks projects that will provide residents with resources for them to continue to learn and stay connected to the community, and enjoy the things they used to take pleasure in before coming to the nursing home.
Two previous projects of the foundation included the construction of a balcony off the second-floor Special Care Alzheimer's units, so that residents could enjoy the outdoors in a secure and pleasing space without having to wait for a staff member or family member to be available to bring them outside, and the purchase of a 14-passenger, wheelchair-accessible bus to bring the residents back into the community.