What It Takes to Help Seniors Learn Technology

When it comes to training people in how to use technology, working with older persons can be especially challenging. For several years, I’ve had the good fortune to volunteer for organizations such as Dorot and Older Adults Technology Services which have specifically focused on helping seniors to become technically proficient. As these programs grow, there will be an increasing need for qualified volunteers. Here are some qualities to look for in people who seek to help seniors learn technology:

  1. Good Listener. Many older persons aren’t initially clear about why they want to get more proficient with a laptop computer or cell phone. (Their interest may have been driven by noticing how fascinated others around them are with their electronic devices.) The first role of a volunteer is to understand the senior’s objective, and then to determine if technology will help them achieve it.
  2. Adaptability. After step one, you may find that your initial plan on what to teach may have to be significantly modified. Volunteers have to be able to shift direction easily.
  3. Patience. You may need to repeat the same concept multiple times before the senior ‘gets it.’ It is important for older persons to become confident in their ability to learn something new. This will only happen if you take things slowly. Don’t try to cover too much too quickly.
  4. Availability. The volunteer must have time to commit on a regular basis. Just because a volunteer role is unpaid doesn’t mean it can be treated casually; the seniors are counting on you!
  5. Good Friend. While older people often say they’d like to learn how to use a smart phone, often their underlying need is to have more social interaction in their life. So if the senior seeks to talk and share details about their lives, be a good listener. When appropriate, ask for the senior’s advice about something in your own life. Establishing a social connection can be as important as to whether you achieve the ‘technical’ goals.
  6. Observer.  Especially in situations where you are spending time with seniors in their homes, volunteers must be able to look for other items requiring intervention. For example, is there food in the house? Are there any signs of hoarding requiring professional help? Is the apartment clean and well maintained?
  7. Ability to Recruit Family and Friends.  In addition to developing a relationship with the older person, it can often be helpful to ask about family members and friends who can help reinforce what you are teaching.

Helping seniors to take advantage of the technology that most of us take for granted can be very rewarding. But it’s important to find the right volunteers – and to follow up with the volunteer and the older person after their relationship has begun.

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