Technology-tutoring program erodes generation gap

Cyber-Seniors a learning opportunity for URI students, older adults

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Linda Thomas of Slocum and Samantha Clark of Coventry, a senior studying psychology and gerontology at URI, take a selfie at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Kingston Campus. Clark and Thomas were paired up for intergenerational technology tutoring through URI Engaging Generations: Cyber-Seniors Program. (photo by Samantha Clark)

KINGSTON, R.I., November 16, 2016 — The generation gap is shrinking one mouse click at a time, and the University of Rhode Island is helping to close it.

In fall 2015 faculty from the Colleges of Health Sciences, Pharmacy and Arts and Sciences launched the URI Engaging Generations: Cyber-Seniors Program, an offshoot of an initiative started by teenage sisters in Canada in 2009 that has expanded to hundreds of communities. Cyber-Seniors pairs students with older adults who want help learning to use computers, smart phones and tablets.

But the URI incarnation is more than a community outreach project. The faculty who created the program — Skye Leedahl, assistant professor of human development and family studies; Erica Estus, clinical associate professor of pharmacy; and Melanie Brasher, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology — have incorporated Cyber-Seniors into their curricula.

“We all watched the Cyber-Seniors documentary, and that spurred our interest,” Leedahl says. “Then we brainstormed about how to embed technology tutoring into classes.”

Pharmacy students receive service-learning credits for volunteering as tutors, while human development and sociology students participate as part of their courses on aging.

“The best part is seeing students improve their ability to communicate with older adults,” Estus says. “If you can talk to them about how to use their iPad, then you can counsel them on their cholesterol medication.”

Students and older adults pair up through URI’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, at PACE in Providence, and at senior centers around the state, including Cranston, East Greenwich, Jamestown, North Kingstown, Pawtucket and South Kingstown. About 150 students and 273 older adults have participated, Leedahl says.

Samantha Clark of Coventry, a senior studying psychology and gerontology, has been involved from the beginning. “I can’t imagine not being a part of it,” says Clark, who also oversees pairings, trains tutors and assists Leedahl in research.

Leedahl is using survey data from five Cyber-Seniors sites across the country to study the program’s impact. Funding comes from a SPARK award from the Institute for Integrated Health and Innovation, part of URI’s Academic Health Collaborative, and other sources are being sought.

Research indicates that Cyber-Seniors may be changing attitudes and lives, Leedahl says. After participating, nearly 100 percent of older adults reported higher levels of social engagement, and nearly nine out of 10 reported less social isolation. Nearly three quarters of the tutors said their time management, communication and leadership skills improved.

Linda Thomas, Clark’s first Cyber-Seniors match, agrees. “A program like this brings people back to life. Social connections and having a purpose are very healing,” says the Slocum resident, who is in her seventies.

Clark helped Thomas build a website to share her writing and interact with followers, which both found rewarding. “Sam changed my life. This has given me courage and confidence and opened doors to a wider world,” Thomas says. “For someone my age to have a voice, it’s amazing.”

“The amount of appreciation she had, and the joy this brought her really showed me how much of an impact the program can have,” says Clark, who notes that tutors need not be technology experts. During training, she tells students to get creative in solving problems and to use a variety of resources, including You Tube videos.

The older adults also have various technological abilities. Some use email and Facebook, while others have never even turned on the iPad their kids bought them, Estus notes. The program accommodates everyone.

And those newly forged cross-generational relationships can have lasting benefits for students in all disciplines. “They are gaining empathy, and that is hard to teach in the classroom,” Estus says.