Seniors get tech tips from Elis

Wedged in the corner of the Tower One Retirement Community’s first floor, room 100 is living up to its name: the “Activities Room.” Complete with a kitchen, multipurpose table and 14 computers, the room has taken on an additional role: technology center.

Technology Across Generations, or TAG, is a computer tutoring program for seniors run by volunteers from the Yale community. TAG is still in its early stages — Erica Schild ’12, Sophia Popova ’11 and Ben Chaidell ’11 co-founded it in January — but already, members said, it is making a positive impact on the lives of its students. And TAG’s founders said it is getting difficult to keep up with increasing demand.

A member of TAG teaches computer skills to a senior citizen.
Jeanne Snow
A member of TAG teaches computer skills to a senior citizen.

It begins with the basics. On Friday afternoons from 1 to 3:30 p.m., seniors flock to room 100 for 15-minute tutoring sessions with one of TAG’s tech-savvy undergraduates. They park their walkers at the door, settle down in front of one of the Dell desktops and log in.

Many of the seniors at the retirement community have never used a computer before and began their lessons by learning to turn them on. For other users, maneuvering the mouse posed a challenge.

“I learned how to make capital letters with the keyboard and how to erase,” Rose Steinman, 94, said. Her first lesson consisted of turning on the computer and a typing tutorial. “I also learned that the mouse takes you around if you know how to boss it around.”

As Popova noted, sometimes the tutors do not realize how hard it is to accurately control the mouse. But Steinman’s technological ambitions are modest.

“I think it would be great to be able to send an e-mail to a friend or a relative or to my children, they’re expert e-mailers,” she said. “It’s just one more positive thing to add to my life while I’m alive.”

Another student, Ruth Cohen, 88, had previously had some familiarity with computers. In the future, Cohen said she wants to become more familiar with the Internet so she can become a member of the online movie rental service Netflix.com.

“I have no place to go out and browse for movies,” Cohen said. “If I can just do it on the computer, that would be marvelous!”

All members of the TAG student body were thankful to their tutors. Some said it was the highlight of their week. Chaidell recounted a session where he saw a dramatic transformation in his students’ mood, from just a small effort on his part.

“All I did was put those different files into folders and within a few minutes, she was really happy and thankful,” Chaidell said. “She started offering me chocolate and water. To see such a transformation in her mood from that simple thing was really cool.”

For the tutors, for whom computer knowledge is second nature, teaching a beginner can require a lot of patience. Eva Cooper, 85, said the TAG members were much more patient than her children were when explaining basic computer skills.

“My sons demonstrated one, two, three,” said Ms. Cooper. “Then they just figured, ‘She’ll figure it out.’ ”

Among the top reasons for wanting to learn how to use a computer were keeping in touch with family members via e-mail and researching information, seniors said. Many residents of the retirement community said they felt disconnected from their families and friends and hoped their new computer skills would help bridge the gap.

“Using the computer has become necessary for communication nowadays, particularly with my grandchildren in Atlanta and Illinois,” Ellsworth Lindsay, 73, said. “It would also be great to be more savvy with the language, there are so many new words now.”

Lindsey also wanted to master surfing the Web to give him a leg up at community-wide trivia competitions. So far, he has been to four classes and was eager to schedule another.

“[The classes] are exciting, there just aren’t enough,” Lindsey said.

As the classes become more popular among seniors, TAG tutors are finding it difficult to keep up with the growing student body. At approximately 2:30 p.m. during Friday’s tutoring session, only Chaidell was there to teach — several senior citizens sat at computers unattended. Chaidell said that there had been another student tutor present during the first hour, and noted that typically, about four tutors attend the sessions. But, he said, tutor numbers remain a constant problem.

The key word, Chaidell said, is expansion.

“We could definitely use some more help with what we’re doing,” Chaidell said. “It’s not a big effort on our part, but is a world of difference.”

But, Schild said, they are optimistic about their expansion prospects.

“We sent out some e-mails to panlists, told friends, and people are finding out by word of mouth,” Schild said.

All of which is good news for the many TAG students eager to continue their lessons.

As Cohen said: “I believe in life-long learning and I’ve been doing it for a long time.”

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