Non-profit helps local seniors learn tech skills for surviving in a pandemic

If you ask Patricia Harvey about the challenges she faced when learning how to use a computer, she laughs.

“(I was) afraid of breaking the computer because I didn’t know how to use it,” she says.

But despite her hesitation, two years ago, the 92-year-old Beamsville resident joined Cyber-Seniors, an organization that encourages youth to teach seniors how to use technology. She figured computers were “here to stay” and thought she might as well figure them out.

“I like to keep busy. I’m not a knitter or crocheter,” said Harvey about why she joined the group.

Technology has helped older adults stay safe, independent, and socially connected. During the pandemic though, it’s become an essential way to access basic necessities.

“We started Cyber-Seniors as a fun way to get seniors connected on the internet,” said group co-founder Kascha Cassaday. “But when COVID hit … it was more about they need to be on the internet in order to get the basic necessities to survive this pandemic.”

Cassaday helped start Cyber-Seniors in 2009 with her sister Macaulee Cassaday. Then in high school, the sisters from Toronto were originally trying to find a way to complete their community service hours. At the time, they were teaching their grandparents how to use Facebook to stay in touch with relatives and thought they could do the same for other older adults. They started holding sessions in local retirement homes, and eventually expanded across Ontario.

In March, when in-person gatherings became restricted, Cyber-Seniors moved their services online. Where hundreds of seniors were joining sessions before, Cassaday says now thousands are participating online from as far away as the United States.

Individuals can register for webinars on a different topic each day, or book a one-on-one call for help with a specific problem. There’s even a weekly “Community Chat” where participants can join just to talk.

Connor Uhrig is a 14-year-old volunteer with the group who joined during the pandemic. The student at Hamilton’s Sherwood Secondary School says he signed up because he wanted to use his free time when schools were out to help others. In the process, he also completed — and far surpassed — his community service hour requirement.

“I found that it was really rewarding to get to help seniors,” he said. “I was surprised how interested the seniors were in technology … and how much they had skills already that you can build on.”

Cassaday says in the Hamilton area, more than 30 seniors are currently participating in Cyber-Seniors.

A survey done last year by AGE-WELL NCE, a Canadian network focused on technology and aging, found the majority of Canadians over age 65 are not only online daily, but believe technology can help keep them safe, stay at home longer, and live independently.

A large proportion, seven in 10, also believe technology can help reduce social isolation.

“If people are socially isolated, then it becomes really important that these kinds of groups exist and that they are accessible and promoted,” said Dr. Aki-Juhani Kyroelaeinen from McMaster’s department of linguistics and languages. His research focuses on language and technology.

“We have a lot of technology available, but most of the technology is designed for the younger generation,” he adds. For example, he says specific design elements such as contrasting colours can help make websites more accessible for individuals with a vision impairment.

As for Harvey, she says technology has been particularly helpful in connecting her with loved ones during the pandemic — to see and talk to them when they can’t meet in person.

“You don’t feel quite so alone,” she said.