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DC teens help seniors build confidence and tech skills

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Annie Miller beamed with excitement as she pointed at the tiles on her iPhone screen, eager to share what she had just learned.

“These are all applications! ” she says. “No one ever told me that.”

Miller, 74, has balked at computers and phones since floppy disks have existed – “I took a computer course and hated it,” she said. But now taxi drivers are texting her to pick her up for a trip to the hospital. Friends send her photos, and she doesn’t know what to say. Miller realized she couldn’t avoid today’s technology forever.

That’s why she eagerly went with her friends to the Benning/Dorothy I. Height Neighborhood Library on a recent Tuesday to learn how to text, zoom photos and mute Zoom calls on her phone. The course was the third session in a series of five-week “Tech 101” workshops launched by the office of the district chief technology officer this summer to teach residents basic tech skills, which are becoming increasingly necessary. for the more than 80,000 people aged 65. or more in DC

“With older people, we don’t like change,” Miller said. “But we better learn to adapt to change.”

For Miller and the city’s seniors, decades older than the first smartphone and all the dizzying devices that followed, gaps in technological literacy can disrupt their daily lives in myriad ways.

Louise Price, 87, answered a phone call from scammers who claimed her son was in hospital. Ruth Paige, 94, still struggles to use the buttons to switch to airplane mode on her flip phone. Sometimes when she can’t turn it off, she’s stuck with no connection.

“Then I don’t use it for two to three days until I get a chance to go to T-Mobile,” Paige said.

Adrian Sutton, Digital Inclusion Instructor and Outreach Coordinator at the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, saw the need for programming to help upgrade seniors in his previous role as Ward 7 Liaison for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). In 2018, he launched a first iteration of workshops to tackle the misconceptions that keep DC seniors disconnected.

“A lot of older people shunned computers and the internet when this happened,” Sutton said. “A lot of older people are just scared of it. They think the internet is [all] Facebook, and if they go to the Internet, then all their stuff will automatically be there.

Jessica Smith, acting director of the DC Department of Aging and Community Living, said in an email that the pandemic has forced even more services for seniors online as the department tries to provide socializing opportunities for residents isolated at home and the desire for human connection.

“To date, we have hosted over 360 virtual community outreach events, in addition to hundreds of online workouts and interactive activities,” she wrote.

Task forces led by the Office of the Chief Technology Officer found in 2021 that, in addition to misconceptions about technology, the costs of smart devices and home internet were keeping many seniors disconnected. During the pandemic, the Department of Aging and Community Living worked with a nonprofit organization to provide iPads to 800 seniors who did not have computers at home.

All of this represents more seniors that Sutton needs to train.

He used to run his workshops himself, but this summer he found some help. Students from the Marion S. Barry Summer Jobs Program for Youth recently joined him at the library to work with a handful of seniors. It’s an encouraging step forward for Sutton, who knows he can only help a limited number of residents when most tech headaches are best solved one-on-one.

“I think every old person just needs a neighborhood grandson, just like every young person needs a neighborhood grandma,” Sutton said.

Errick Lewis, 16, joined the program on the recommendation of his engineering teacher at Dunbar High School. He sat down with Miller, walking her through the process of texting a photo.

“I see myself doing this in the future,” said Lewis, who wants to work in IT.

Sutton’s workshops will take place every Tuesday and Thursday at different libraries for another two weeks, and he is planning other programs to help other communities impacted by digital literacy issues. In August, he will work with the Department of Disability Services to run four similar workshops for residents with disabilities. He also hopes to set up workshops to support citizens released from incarceration in the future.

“I have a friend…he came home to [20]15 years old, and he just missed the iPod. He had never touched an iPod,” Sutton said.

At noon, Miller and Paige were still asking questions, Miller taking neat notes in a small notebook. “It kinda helps,” Paige said of the workshop, though she was nervous about remembering everything from the day. Miller agreed that she would appreciate more regular lessons to help repeat the skills they were still learning.

But the two left the library proud to take matters into their own hands after years of their families managing their devices for them. Paige planned to go to Target to replace her flip phone with an iPhone 8. Before leaving, Miller carefully followed her notes to text a photo of her grandsons to a friend in New York.

“I don’t know anymore now,” she said. “I am grateful for this program.”

DC’s Tech 101 workshops are free and run Tuesdays and Thursdays through August 4 at various public libraries around the city. A schedule can be found here, and translators can be provided upon request emailed to techtogether@dc.gov. The Office of the Chief Technology Officer plans to offer more classes throughout the year, and schedules will be available at techtogetherdc.com.

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