LeadingAge Magazine · March/April 2013 • Volume 03 • Number 02

Students and Seniors Connect Across the Digital Divide

March 03, 2013 | by Jan Frizén

Intergenerational programming is turned to practical purposes by the eSeniors program, which brings tech-savvy high school students together with curious seniors.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, as of last year, 53% of American adults age 65 and older were using the internet or email. Though these numbers are significant, rapid changes, increasing physical limitations, the complexities of devices, confusing manuals and seemingly endless upgrades can still add up to huge hurdles for some older adults.

For those living in retirement communities, the problem can be exacerbated by a lack of technology training programs available to residents. But Covenant Village, Plantation, FL, has been leading the way to calm some of those fears with eSeniors, a volunteer partnership program between the community and students from Ft. Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas High School.

Each Saturday, student volunteers provide one-on-one instruction to residents in all aspects of computer use, ranging from email, Skype, Facebook, Word, Excel and photo sharing to Google Earth and Web surfing. Volunteers also regularly provide technical support, installing software and hardware, setting up Internet connections, and even helping their senior students make online purchases and travel reservations. Services have recently expanded to assisting with smartphones, televisions and digital cameras.

The program was born from an interesting coincidence, according to Covenant resident Marjorie Vannais, who serves as liaison between residents and student volunteers. In late 2008, Covenant facilitated a resident “think tank” to develop new programs and activities. The top request was to become more competent with computers and other emerging technologies in order to stay in touch with family and friends.

Around the same time, Alberto Mestre, then a freshman at St. Thomas Aquinas, reached out to Vannais while investigating partnership opportunities for a new community service project he was spearheading. Mestre’s pitch was simple and seemed like a win-win: Students could earn community service credits for graduation by helping people like their own grandparents get “connected.” Since its official launch in August 2009, eSeniors has opened the world of technology to a number of residents, and as the inaugural class of instructors prepares for graduation, a new group of freshmen is being trained as their replacements for the 2013-14 school year.

On YouTube there is a great 2010 video outlining the origins of the program:

In addition to a love of computers, Mestre developed a desire to help seniors during school service days at retirement communities and skilled nursing communities while still in middle school.

“I was impressed by their welcoming spirit,” Mestre says. “They genuinely enjoyed the companionship of the students.” He also noticed that computers were available but were not being used. “It seemed that, with some instruction and motivation,” he adds, “the lives of those people could really improve and they’d eliminate some of the feelings of isolation that can occur.”

When approaching potential partner communities, Mestre discovered that the demand for friendly, patient and free computer assistance was not only needed but readily welcomed. “Some people were hesitant at first,” he says, “but they soon realized they were missing out and signed on to eSeniors.” (Another group of students work with residents at another Plantation retirement community.)

“We love the new world our computers have opened for us,” says Vannais. “Personally, I use it for some email, but most extensively I use Google to look up information and MS Word for creative writing.” Other residents are now active with online banking, shopping, gaming, medical research, and even visiting museums online. “Having these skills helps keep our brains active and keeps us connected.”

Vannais also credits Mestre’s parents, Dr. Alberto and Leticia Mestre, who serve as adult advisors. “Working with unselfish students who juggle academics, sports, work and other responsibilities is humbling,” she adds, “but nothing compares to the smile and spark in our eyes when we ‘get it’!”

Results include numerous success stories and memorable experiences:

  • A client in her late 90s who mastered Google Earth and was able to fulfill friends’ wishes to “travel” to Cambodia via satellite
  • A grandmother who connected with a granddaughter serving onboard an aircraft carrier in the Middle East via Facebook
  • A former USO performer using YouTube to view performances from colleagues she had not seen since the war
  • A Skype reconciliation between an elderly father and his son who had not spoken to each other in years

Mestre notes that some participants have become so proficient that they only check in occasionally, or only stop by for some advice. “They love to look for the houses where they grew up or the churches where they prayed,” he says, “but in the end, it is all about reconnecting to friends, family, the world and memories.”

Manufacturers report that an older audience is leading the charge in sales of e-reader and tablet PCs such as the Apple iPad and the Amazon Kindle, and are catching up with more senior-oriented products and services. This past summer, consumer electronics giant Best Buy teamed up with AARP to offer the organization’s members reduced rates on annual plans from its tech support subsidiary, Geek Squad.

Benefits are not limited to electronics, as students and mentors learn from each other. The residents enjoy the weekly interactions with the young and enthusiastic high-schoolers and the friendships that have developed. A lot of time is spent simply visiting and sharing life experiences. The community has veterans, former entertainers, world travelers, business leaders and artists. Their stories are truly inspiring.

Student volunteers have, in turn, honed their skills in IT, teaching and troubleshooting, not to mention patience and learning to deal with challenging situations when residents encounter physical difficulties such as arthritic pain or visual impairment.

Although eSeniors is a not-for-profit volunteer program, the group has sought funding from a number of technology and financial institutions, and was a finalist in the recent Pepsi Refresh Grant. Mestre notes that the group continues to work toward that goal, and is confident that the program will eventually find the means to expand nationally.

A few of the participants presented the eSeniors model as an abstract and poster presentation at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatrists in San Antonio.

Mestre has expressed interest in developing software that facilitates the computing process for seniors, especially those who are severely arthritic, legally blind, etc. These plans will have to wait, since he has accepted an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. As he prepares for the next phase of his life, Mestre is in the process of passing responsibility for the program down to freshmen at his high school.