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Tech experts lend helping hand to older learners

Though some seniors dip a toe into the digital world only after receiving a laptop, tablet or smartphone as a gift, others dive into technology.

Yet no matter their approach, older adults generally prefer to become computer-literate through formal instruction, not by watching their grandkids click, swipe or tweet.

Various Rochester-area organizations and businesses have stepped up to meet the rising demand for computer education on seniors’ terms.

At the Jewish Community Center’sTechAge Adult Computer Learning Center in Brighton, close to 300 new students cross the threshold every year, says Joel Elias, the program’s coordinator. Even the introductory classes remain popular.

“We’re also seeing interest (from) people who are returning to the workforce in classes like Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel,” Elias says.

The center’s open lab, where volunteer coaches provide free help on weekdays to members of the public who are 45 or older, also sees steady traffic, he says.

Older learners who have mobility issues or simply want to learn on their own machines can turn to SeniorTech, a Macedon-based firm that provides in-home computer lessons. Many students opt for personalized instruction after taking a class from a “young, fast-talking hotshot who used all kinds of jargon that went right over their heads,” says SeniorTech owner Jerry Taylor.

“Obviously, it’s convenient because, unlike their doctor, I make house calls,” he adds.

While millennials would rather wing it than read a user manual, follow a tutorial or take a class, recent research shows that seniors want help when learning about computers and mobile technology.

According to a 2013 survey by Pew Research Center, 77 percent of senior-age respondents would prefer to have help when learning to use a tablet, smartphone, e-book reader or other device. Among those who already own one or more devices and have some experience with technology, only 29 percent would feel at ease tinkering with new devices on their own.

The same reluctance holds true for seniors’ social media use, given that 56 percent of respondents who use the Internet but not Facebook or another social network would prefer to have assistance getting started.

Seniors have been slower to get online than other cohorts, but once they do, 71 percent use the Internet daily or nearly daily, the survey reveals. Seventy-eight percent of seniors who have the convenience of a home-based broadband connection and 84 percent who own smartphones go online every day or almost every day, the research shows.

Since its founding as Rochester SeniorNet Learning Center nearly 15 years ago, TechAge has dramatically increased its course offerings. The center is expecting high demand for classes on Windows 10, slated to make its debut this month.

“When we first started out, I was guessing that people who have come up through businesses and learned computers in their … 30s and 40s that they wouldn’t need our classes—this thing will probably last five or 10 years,” Elias says. “And what I think is happening is that there’s always new stuff coming out, and people who are middle-aged, and older adults, don’t pick that up on their own.”

Strong demand for iPad classes prompted the center to roll out a class on Android tablets earlier this year. Another new offering is Protect, Back Up and Clean Your PC, a four-lesson class that teaches students how to avoid viruses, manage privacy online and back up files.

TechAge classes range from $20 to $89, and students do not need to belongto the Jewish Community Center to enroll. A $10 discount is available for those who take a class with a friend or relative.

Open only to TechAge students, the Ask the Pros program offered on Wednesdays provides free expert advice on issues ranging from spyware removal to application installations. The experts also help students with digital-camera problems.

In some instances, students come to TechAge with the most practical of questions, such as how to adjust their home computers to accommodate hearing or vision loss, arthritis or other physical limitations. The instructors address those concerns individually and offer handouts on adaptive technology, Elias says.

Many SeniorTech students initially worry they will break a computer if they fiddle with it too much. Few realize that restarting a device can resolve various problems.

“They’re afraid of accidentally deleting this or accidentally deleting that,” adds Taylor, a former teacher in the Greece Central School District. Once they learn that it takes many steps to get rid of something, “they lose a lot of that fear,” he says.

With students ranging from age 60 to over 90, SeniorTech serves beginner computer users but also can tailor the instruction to accommodate specific interests such as digital scrapbooking, online games or genealogy research.

“Much to the consternation of teenagers, a lot of seniors are now getting onto Facebook,” Taylor adds.

SeniorTech charges $90 for three one-hour in-home lessons, or $35 an hour. The introductory meeting is free.

At Rochester Institute of Technology’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, nearly 85 percent of the 635 members are computer literate, but they still have a voracious appetite for technology and related matters. Recent classes at the institute, where members must be 50 or older, have ranged from blogging basics to women’s history in computing.

Osher did not offer computer courses six years ago, says Marie Levin, the institute’s chair of media and communications. Now members come to the institute armed with smartphones and e-readers.

“They’ll use the technology if it’s going to help them in their daily lives,” she adds. “And they have the time now, so they embrace technology.”

Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

7/17/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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