Recently, an elderly woman (let’s call her Tess) crossed an icy sidewalk while leaning on her tennis-ball-accessorized walker, trying to keep the wind from blowing her coat open. She told me that while her husband was dying over the recent holidays, her cellphone rang and rang. Her family wanted updates, hope, information. While she was holding on tightly to her husband, she could’ve used some propping up herself. But she couldn’t figure out how to answer her smartphone.

About a month had passed, and she began to start picking herself up. She made the decision to learn to use that phone. To many, this seems like no big deal. How many moments of the day do each of us spend picking up our phones? Putting down our phones. Glancing at our phones. Hoping they’ll ring. Hoping they’ll ping. Hoping they’ll shut up.

But make no mistake. To a certain generation, they’re an alien being. A foreign object. A new language entirely. Tess walked through that heavy door to Cyber-Seniors, where teen volunteers teach senior citizens to use technology, helping bridge the digital divide and improve peoples’ quality of life. As we like to say at Cyber-Seniors, “Teens teach. Seniors learn. Win. Win.”

I often explain that understanding new technology is like learning a new language for senior citizens who are suddenly gifted a new smartphone or tablet — with the best of intentions from loving family who immediately become too busy and frustrated to explain their offering. People who have lived long and contributed much can suddenly feel overwhelmed when presented with a shiny new phone or tablet. Helpless, even. Discouraged.

I tell them this: When your plane lands in Greece, you wouldn’t expect yourself to deplane and suddenly know fluent Greek. It is the same thing with new technology. Simply because you’re holding a new gadget, you’re not expected to suddenly know how to use it. People might be speaking Greek all around you — or texting each other constantly — but it’s OK. If a child’s brought up with Greek-speaking parents or grandparents, the child grows up being fluent. Such is the way of technology. Our kids are growing up with it. They’re fluent. And they are turning the tables.

Yesterday, a teen boy (let’s call him David) arrived breathless after a full day of high school and searched for a parking place along the snowy streets — but not one that was too close, as he’d leave those for senior citizens seeking help. The son of immigrants, he’s long helped his own family to understand communication and technology, so he became a weekly volunteer at Cyber-Seniors as a teen tech mentor.

It’s not only the seniors who are learning at intergenerational programs like Cyber-Seniors, as opportunities to learn from one another abound. I see intermingling — hope, if you will — in an extremely divisive time in our society. Hope that we’re all more alike than we are different. Hope that more of this young generation feels the joy that helping others brings. Hope that what my own grandmother told me in her 90s — that we’re never too old to learn something new — is indeed true for us all.

Tess came to me after working with David for 90 minutes. “He’s just wonderful,” she said, beaming, thrilled that she now knows how to answer her phone and make calls of her own. Suddenly she held a new lifeline, a symbol of independence and she claimed she didn’t have the words to tell me how much David had helped her.

As afternoon turned to dusk, David was beaming, having worked with three more senior citizens, all raving about what they’d learned and how much he’d helped them. All, feeling more confident. “Man, that was fun! That felt great.”

I hear these comments every week at Cyber-Seniors, over and over again — how smart, patient and helpful our kids are, and how satisfying, invigorating and rewarding it is to help others. Different backgrounds, different ages, different knowledge. Yet, we are all more alike than we are different. As long as we keep learning from, listening to and helping one another, I think we will be all right.

 

Beth Slater Winnick is a nonprofit consultant and program manager for Cyber-Seniors (cyberseniors.org). Based in Minneapolis, she can be reached at beth@cyberseniors.org.