Since 2016, OATS has operated its Senior Planet program in Montgomery County, Maryland. Thanks to funding from ultraMontgomery and the Montgomery County Department of Technology Services, more than 450 older Marylanders have taken Senior Planet courses. OATS’ presence in the Old Line State continues to grow as the organization reaches more seniors and presents its distinctive view on aging among the key players in the state’s aging industry. To this end, OATS recently participated in the Maryland Gerontological Association’s (MGA) 2018 spring conference, which took place in Columbia, Maryland, on May 23, 2018.
The title for this year’s conference was “The New Era of Gero-Technology: Real-Life Challenges and Promising Solutions,” with a focus on how the gerontology community is adapting in the Digital Age. Among the attendees were social workers, caregivers, hospital workers, staff from local retirement / assisted living communities and senior centers, and representatives from various organizations and government agencies that work with seniors, including from Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. (CHAI), Montgomery Villages, and the Howard County Office on Aging and Independence.
The topic and audience provided OATS with a great opportunity to present its work. OATS Executive Director Tom Kamber set the tone for the conference as the keynote speaker and, later in the day, OATS Montgomery County Project Manager Allison Adams led a panel discussion with three Senior Planet members.
Optimism, Identity and Design: What Technology Programs Are Teaching Us About the Future of Aging
During his keynote presentation, titled, “Optimism, Identity and Design: What Technology Programs Are Teaching Us About the Future of Aging,” Mr. Kamber gave an overview of important lessons learned from 15 years of providing technology training to older adults in community settings.
In discussing the role of optimism and concepts of active aging as they relate to technology learning for older adults, Mr. Kamber provided some insight into OATS’ strategic models of providing technology training and programs in community settings. In this context, he also explored notions of identity as a framework for building effective program models for older adults, drawing on research related to “diffusion of innovation” models and how they link to design strategies for social impact.
Mr. Kamber stated clearly at the outset of his presentation that the growing older adult population—often referred to as the “Silver Tsunami—is by-and-large perceived as a burden on society when it can, and should, be viewed as an opportunity, noting that aging is a developmental experience, that there is “never a moment in our lives when we can’t grow.”
To support this position, Mr. Kamber shared stories of Senior Planet members who have transformed the way they live through technology and, in doing so, continue to contribute to society. He discussed how technology created specifically for seniors is often designed as a response to disability, as though the two are inseparable. He asked the audience to think about how this must feel for older adults and stressed how “we need to be designing technology for seniors not because of disability, but because they have something to say and something to offer.”
Mr. Kamber closed by reiterating how those working to improve the lives of older adults need to design technologies and technology programs for older adults that embrace new identities and reflect how technology can be a tool for transformative change (i.e. not treated as an end unto itself), and that we should endeavor to design awesome experiences, not by attempting to help a senior overcome a disability per se, but providing them with experiences that are meaningful, engaging, and positive.
Voices from the Gero-Tech World: An Intimate Conversation
During the Senior Planet panel discussion led by Ms. Adams, Monique Bilezikian, Josephine Djoukeng, and Stephen Fernando—the three participating Senior Planet Montgomery members—shared their experiences with technology, stressing how technology has advanced so rapidly over the past few decades, leaving many of their generation behind.
Ms. Bilezikian explained how she has become frustrated not only at feeling of being left behind but by the response of the younger generation who “try to be helpful.” She explained how her How do I…? questions are most often met with impatience and a swift Let me to do it for you. She provided an example how she once saw a senior using a check-in kiosk at the airport and couldn’t work out how to scan her ID document. Rather than showing her how to do it, the customer service person immediately it did for her. Ms. Adams noted how she often has the same problem with these kiosks, but as a younger person no one has ever come up and taken the ID document out of her hands to do it for her.
On a more positive note, the panelists talked about how technology has opened new doors for them. Ms. Djoukeng, a nutritionist, explained how she has started her own business and is in the process of setting up a website. Mr. Fernando discussed how he has now reconnected to friends and family thousands of miles away through FaceTime and WhatsApp.
All three panelists talked about how the Senior Planet curriculum and learning environment are designed specifically for older adults, and how this made a significant difference for them in terms of engaging with new technologies. During the Q&A that followed, an audience member asked what advice they would give to an older adult intimidated by learning to use new technologies. The panelists agreed that the best approach is to start small and not feel pressured to learn everything at once, reminding the audience that everyone, not only seniors, is continually learning because technology itself is changing all the time.
The audience walked away with deeper understanding for how to engage older adults through engaging, tech-themed programming, insight into the possibilities that can be unlocked when mainstream technologies are coupled with age-relevant programming, and personal stories of how technology adoption is improving and transforming of older adults.
It should be noted, that this was the only session of the day that featured seniors, where they’re doing the talking rather than being talked about. The Senior Planet Montgomery members received a lot of positive feedback afterward about the importance of their voices at the conference.
OATS’ mission extends beyond teaching older adults how to use technology. In order to change the way we age, we are also changing the way the world views aging. We did this at the MGA conference and, no doubt, left a lasting impression on the Maryland gerontology community.