Helping senior citizens connect with tech

UCLA student volunteers create a program in which those interested in learning more about technology and social media can flourish
UCLA student Lauren Bui helps a woman learn how to better use a laptop.

UCLA sophomore Aleena Sorfazian was looking forward to her first day at Tech Help for U. But she wasn’t a student; she was one of 20 volunteers who would be teaching older people how to better use their iPhones, iPads, laptops and other devices, as part of a community outreach program created in partnership with UCLA Health.

The senior citizens waiting at UCLA Health - Santa Monica Medical Center on this Saturday morning were also eager for their sessions to begin as each would receive 45 minutes of individual instruction with a student/tutor prepared to answer their technology questions and coach them as they practiced their new skills.

“I’ve taught my own grandparents, so I know older people can find technology intimidating,” said Sorfazian, who plans to attend medical school after graduation. “But I’ve also seen how technology can help older people connect with those they love. For many of them who can’t travel, knowing how to text or use Facebook can really improve their quality of life.”

Tech Help for U was the brainchild of Jonathan Hwang, a fourth-year student preparing for medical school, and Tiffany Chen, a fourth-year student planning to become an optometrist, both of whom were already volunteers for another UCLA Health program that helps older patients fill out electronic hospital forms.

The two wanted to do more to help seniors in the community, so were connected to Ishara Bailis, director of UCLA Health 50-Plus, a wellness program that provides health information, educational events and activities to seniors on the Westside and other communities throughout Southern California. They recruited other UCLA students for the project, while UCLA 50-Plus promoted the half-day sessions in UCLA Health publications, at community talks and in doctors’ offices.

Sign-ups have been brisk, and participants come prepared with their devices and lists of questions. The most common ones? How to enlarge fonts so devices are easier to read, how to download podcasts, news and music apps and how to better use social media sites like Facebook, Pinterest and WhatsApp.

“It’s wonderful that these technologies exist, making it so much easier for people to connect.  But older people, who are already more likely to be lonely, may not have the skills needed to utilize benefit from them,” Ishara said. “Watching them gain knowledge and confidence is rewarding to our student volunteers.  They know their efforts will have a lasting impact.”

Myra Dell, attending her second Tech Help for U event, had already learned how to better use FaceTime to interact with her son in the Philippines, but returned to expand her Facebook and other social media skills.

“I don’t like texting because I find it difficult to see the letters, but if I want to communicate with my grandchildren I know it’s my only option,” Dell said.

“In some ways, I envy how easy it is for kids to communicate today, but in other ways, I don’t,” Dell continued. “They’ll never be able to experience the satisfaction of hanging up on a school friend in the middle of an argument.”

Three Tech Help for U sessions have been held at UCLA Health’s Santa Monica campus since the program started late last year, and with interest running high, more are planned for the fall.

Grant Ramey, another 50-Plus member, brought his laptop and questions about sending photos and shopping online. “We’re internet immigrants. Even though we may be able to speak the language, we’re never going to be native speakers. Getting one-on-one instruction from tutors who can explain things in ways I can understand has been great. I’m interested in signing up for a spot at the next one.”

At the recent session, there were 15 participants, but more than 50 seniors have taken part in the program to date. Plans to expand to other locations on the Westside are in the works. 

“It’s not hard to be patient,” Sorfazian said. “I’m 19. I have an 11-year-old cousin. He has to teach me what’s new — I’m like a senior citizen to him. No one knows everything. No one knows what new technologies will emerge next — not me, and not the older people we’re helping. Really, we’re all in this together.”

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