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Text and the City

May 17, 2012 By:
Rachel Vigoda, Special Sections Feature
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Relax, technophobes. That computer you’re shying away from doesn’t have a self-destruct button. So go ahead and start hitting keys.

“That’s the initial huge hump they have to get over,” says computer consultant Beth White. “Every time I say, ‘No, there isn’t one button you can push that will kill your computer.’ ”

White, who owns computer-training company Access-Ability, has carved a niche out of teaching technology to the retirement set at places like Martins Run, a Jewish senior living community in Delaware County.

After years of working with seniors, she names fear as the biggest obstacle to tackling technology.

The remedy? Encouragement. And lots of patience.

“A lot of times there’s that little voice saying, ‘I’m too old for this, I’m not going to get it.’ Part of my job is saying, ‘Yes, you can,’ ” says David Grauel, a computer consultant who teaches “Introduction to Computers for the Terrified” through Temple University's non-credit program, as well as an intro class at Mt. Airy Learning Tree (which also offers “How to Type With More Than One Finger”).

Both of Grauel’s courses draw mostly seniors.
“It requires patience, because for people who didn’t grow up with this technology, it doesn’t just come second nature,” Grauel says. “You have kids whipping around saying, ‘Grandma, just click this’; it’s too fast. You really have to break it down slowly.

“But it’s definitely never too late to learn,” he adds. “The smartest thing to do is just jump in and get started.”

Both teachers stress that practice makes perfect: The trick to getting comfortable with new technology is to keep at it, and learn from making mistakes.
“I really think anybody can get it. Nobody is too old. I have a 97-year-old client,” White says. “The key is having the desire to learn. If the desire is there, we can make it work.”

While Grauel concentrates on PC basics, like creating folders for documents and photos and getting comfortable with the mouse, White has found that her students at Martins Run are more interested in using technology as a communication tool.
Exploring Facebook, the social networking website where users connect with friends and share news and photos, and Skype, which lets you make phone calls and “video calls” over the Internet, are two favorites. Getting tips on how to shop online on sites like eBay is another frequent request.

“They want to interact with family members. Even if they don’t put anything on Facebook themselves, they want to set up an account so they can read updates and see pictures of their grandkids,” White says.

Skype is a hit at Martins Run because it’s a way to chat with, and see, relatives in Israel, she adds.

White also holds a class she calls “Eliminating Errands,” designed to show seniors quick and easy ways to accomplish everyday tasks online, like renewing library books or buying stamps.

Of course, technology isn’t always easy. “In a way, it makes their lives harder,” says Dorothy Kent. “But it makes their lives more interesting,” adds her husband, Harry Hellerman.

Kent’s parents lived at Martins Run and relied on their daughter, who wrote a book on computer software, and son-in-law, who has a computer science degree and worked in fiber optics for Verizon, to sort out their technology snaggles.

Pretty soon, the couple was getting “help me with my computer!” calls from other residents, too. They even started hosting a monthly club at Martins Run, addressing a new technology-related issue at each session.

“Some people thought it was over their heads, but then you’d have other residents recruiting the reluctant ones,” Hellerman says. “They’d say, ‘I’m 92 and I can do it. Why can’t you?’ ”

Kent’s parents passed away in 2004 and 2010, but Dorothy and Harry are still “on call.” They now charge for some services, like installing a digital photography program or customizing a cell phone, with a portion of the profits going back into Martins Run.
If acting as a retirement community’s unofficial tech department sounds tedious, it’s not, swears Kent.

“It grew out of my father and mother offering our services, saying, ‘Oh, my daughter can do this, my son-in-law can do that,’ ” she says. “But it made us part of the community with my parents. All of the sudden we inherited a lot more mothers and fathers.”

Lions Gate, a Jewish retirement home in Voorhees, N.J., is also lucky enough to have someone on hand who can troubleshoot computer problems and share tips on word processing, computer maintenance, navigating the Internet and more. He also created database programs for the staff to manage event calendars, menus and the resident directory, and posts videos of community events, including shows put on by the Lions Gate Spielers, on a website.

He’ll be 91 this summer.

Ernie Jellinek moved into Lions Gate in 2007 with his wife of 67 years, Roz. He received his engineering degree in 1941, and worked in systems engineering for the Electronics Corporation of America and RCA until retiring and becoming a computer consultant.
Now Jellinek helps out the Lions Gate staff — which he says keeps him “busy and out of mischief” — and hosts computer classes for fellow residents.

“If you’re scared and think you’re too old to learn it, you need to get over that,” he says. “Me, I just dive right in and figure it out.”

When the folks at Lions Gate expressed curiosity about Facebook, for example, he played around with the website until he knew enough to teach a class on it.
Jellinek, who has three computers in his apartment, tries to encourage the other residents to make technology part of their daily routines, too, even if it’s just figuring out how to email with the grandkids.

“You have to keep learning, keep developing your skills,” he says.
My 86-year-old grandpa doesn’t hear well enough to chat on the phone anymore, so he’s taken to send me text messages from his cell phone. He says he taught himself how to do it while bored in a hospital bed, recovering from foot surgery.

I texted him from a taxi in Old City the other day, complaining that I had been crawling along for 15 minutes, stuck behind a horse-drawn carriage.

He responded right away: “I move faster than that. Tell him to giddy up.”

Rachel Vigoda is an award-winning writer and editor in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in several online and print publications.

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