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‘Just Push the Buttons.’ Seniors Get Smartphone Lessons

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‘Just Push the Buttons.’ Seniors Get Smartphone Lessons

When Ruth Rosner bought her first cellphone five years ago, she was 98 years old.

“Someone dragged me to the store and made me,” recalls Ms. Rosner, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “She was a control freak. She didn’t like it that I didn’t have one,” she said of the friend.

Ms. Rosner didn’t use the device much, even after upgrading from a flip phone to an iPhone. The retired sales executive didn’t like the way she saw others getting addicted to their smartphones.

“People are sitting at the dinner table glued to these things,” she says. “I said, ‘Give me back the carrier pigeon and quill pen.’”

But these days, Ms. Rosner, now 103, is happily using her smartphone to send texts, display photos and track prescriptions.

She is even using voice commands, which is easier than pecking at a tiny keyboard. She refers to Siri as her “secretary.”

Volunteer Reshma Rughwani, left, has taught Ruth Rosner to use her phone.


Photo:

Anne Kadet/The Wall Street Journal

Smartphone ownership among Americans age 65 and older is growing fast, rising from 18% in 2013 to 53% this year, according to the Pew Research Center. Overall, 81% of U.S. adults own a smartphone, up from 58% in 2013.

Ms. Rosner’s change of heart is thanks to a new program, Technology Coaching, which provides at-home visits to seniors who want help mastering their smartphones.

The free tutoring is offered by DOROT, a Manhattan nonprofit that connects older folks with volunteers who provide services ranging from shopping escorts to social visits. The past year had 6,800 volunteers providing 60,000 hours of service to more than 3,500 Manhattan and Westchester seniors.

“That brought this wonderful woman,” said Ms. Rosner, referring to her smartphone tutor, Reshma Rughwani.

Through August and September, Ms. Rughwani, a 51-year-old consultant who owns her own business, came by Ms. Rosner’s apartment on Thursday mornings to teach smartphone basics such as updating a contact list.

Ms. Rughwani says she decided to volunteer after seeing how a smartphone and iPad kept her own father connected following his retirement.

“And then I was lucky enough to get paired up with Ruth,” she says.

The two have become friends and plan to continue their visits. Ms. Rughwani found Ms. Rosner’s progress inspiring. “I’ve shied away from social media, but now for my business, I need to be on it,” she says. “If Ruth can get on the smartphone at 103, I can do social media.”

Ms. Rosner, meanwhile, says she isn’t immune to the well-known pitfalls of instant communication. She recently texted a few pals a photo of herself wearing little more than a pink feather boa, which she now regrets, worrying that it could find its way onto social media. “I thought it was funny, but you don’t want to see that on

Facebook,

” she says.

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DOROT’s new program came out of its longstanding tech-response service, in which volunteers visit seniors at home to help with issues ranging from jammed printers to organizing digital files.

Once they arrived, volunteers were often bombarded with tech questions they weren’t prepared to answer, says program director Lorraine Voytek—especially when it came to smartphones.

The result is a smartphone-tutoring program that has trained volunteers visiting seniors in their home, typically for four sessions. The volunteers bring printed guides—written in-house—featuring step-by-step instructions. The program is offered for both iPhone and Android devices.

The nonprofit says the pilot program, launched in August, aimed to include 12 pairs of seniors and volunteers; it attracted 38. Since then, it has continued on a rolling admission basis. DOROT is seeking additional volunteers to meet demand.

Ethel Elkin, left, has learned how to delete emails and make voice searches from volunteer Julie Kim.


Photo:

Anne Kadet for the Wall Street Journal

Ethel Elkin, a retired guidance counselor in her 90s, is halfway through her smartphone training with 36-year-old volunteer Julie Kim, who works for an investment startup.

Last week, in the dining nook of her Manhattan apartment, Ms. Elkin practiced deleting emails from her iPhone.

Ms. Kim suggested a more efficient method, but Ms. Elkin shook her head. “I feel safer with my three-step process,” she said. “The other one is faster, but at my age it doesn’t matter.”

They practiced sending photos to Ms. Elkin’s niece, then moved on to performing Google searches using voice commands.

“TV Ears!” Ms. Elkin barked into her phone, seeking a hearing-aid product she’d seen advertised on television.

Google returned a link for TD Bank.

“It’s TV Ears! E-A-R-S!” Ms. Elkin corrected her phone. “V as in Victor!”

She next tried searching for bedroom slippers. Google returned 82 million results. “Why are there so many?” said Ms. Elkin. “Ridiculous.”

Ms. Elkin clearly experiences the same frustrations with her phone that the rest of us do. But she’s enjoying her time with Ms. Kim. “I think she’s wonderful,” she said of her tutor. “It’s fun to have her come.”

And her smartphone, which she had avoided using since buying it two years ago, is transforming from a vexing mystery to a handy tool.

“What I learned from Julie is just push the buttons and something will happen,” says Ms. Elkin. “Before she came, I was afraid to touch the damn thing.”

Write to Anne Kadet at Anne.Kadet@wsj.com

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