January 31, 2012

Maine Voices: Communities should help seniors with their computer literacy

Better computer skills lead to knowledge, confidence and enjoyment that can enrich their lives.

By Cynthia H. Sargent, a retired seventh-grade teacher in Yarmouth

YARMOUTH — In 2003, my 84-year-old father attempted to modernize his life by purchasing a basic computer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cynthia H. Sargent is a retired seventh-grade teacher in Yarmouth.

I was delighted to see him enter the age of technology with a tool that could enhance his life. By emailing children and grandchildren, he would bridge the miles that separate us and be more connected with our lives. He could satisfy his intellect by researching topics through cyberspace.

What might have been a life-enhancing step toward modernity, however, became a frustrating experience resulting in his cancellation of Internet service, reducing this powerful tool to a simple word processor. If he had obtained technological support, he would have succeeded in joining the digital age.

My father remained mentally alert until his death three years later. Imagine the opportunities he missed without access to the Web: pursuing interest in history, traveling the world on virtual tours, reading breaking news about the stock market and world events. Medical websites could have helped him manage his health.

While I cannot change my father's experience, I can encourage communities to assist aging citizens with technology. Building seniors' skills and understanding of computers can enrich their lives.

Many baby-boomers and their parents from The Greatest Generation are "digital immigrants" (Marc Prensky, 2001). They approach technology like a foreign language, timidly and lacking confidence. In contrast, modern youths are "digital natives," speaking the language of the computer age from their earliest years.

In 2002, I experienced the challenges of a digital immigrant as a seventh grade teacher when the Maine Laptop Initiative was introduced. Similarly, many adults learn technology in the workplace, their skills practiced and acquired over time.

Yet, I remain concerned for isolated seniors who lack the access necessary to build their computer understanding and skills.

I challenge individuals and communities to expand resources for seniors, particularly those who are confined.

The potential of computer literacy is limitless:

Consider the extensive life experience and knowledge the aging population offers, how they can enhance their own lives and also contribute to others.

Imagine a myriad of blogs focused on common interests, comments exchanged across digital space on topics both intellectual and practical.

Think about the excitement of finding a former classmate through social media or previously unknown ancestors from a genealogical search.

In addition to personal interests, there are many essential practical uses. Institutions (banks, utilities, retailers, etc.) increasingly expect clients to communicate via technology. Computer literacy has become a necessity, not merely a luxury.

Today, adults can access technology instruction through employers, local community services, including libraries, professional consultants, retail stores and online. But, these services are not easily accessible to all.

I recently contacted several local community service directors, librarians and activities directors in senior centers. They reported that technology support exists for adults and seniors in Cumberland County, but is centered primarily in larger communities (Portland and Brunswick) and newer assisted living residences.

A Portland librarian reviewed various popular adult computer classes. One assisted living activities director described their computer lab, complete with instructors, called ambassadors, whom they contract through Connected Living, based in Quincy, Mass. This company "provides technology, people and programming to senior living providers."

It is impressive and encouraging that such providers are committed to this mission. While efforts are being made to broaden senior citizens' use of computers, the services in Cumberland County appear inconsistent.

The state of Maine has taken steps to improve computer access and skills through the Maine State Library BTOP Grant (Department of Commerce, 2010).

This funds "projects to establish new public computer facilities or upgrade existing ones that provide broadband access to the general public or to specific vulnerable populations, such as low-income individuals, the unemployed, seniors, children, minorities, and people with disabilities."

It is reassuring to know that seniors are among the targeted groups..

Seniors can attain goals to improve their computer skills, knowledge, confidence, and enjoyment which can enrich and empower their lives. I challenge our communities to develop or expand resources to improve seniors' computer literacy, offering them a helping hand into the present.

– Special to The Press Herald

 

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