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Otsego County Programs Foster Computer Literacy Among Senior Citizens

Connect Michigan’s research shows that 79% of Michiganders utilize Internet connectivity, leaving the other 21% disconnected from many of the features that inform and connect our lives. Residents over 60 are one of the key groups underutilizing new capabilities, leaving many without the means to join and share with a growing majority of the population. In an effort to bridge this growing separation, The Otsego County Commission on Aging (OCCOA) united with Michigan State University’s School of Social Work the local Gaylord University Center to initiate the Technology on Aging (TAP) project for their older residents.

MSU Professor Paul P. Freddolino, Associate Professor Amanda Toler Woodward, Specialist Tina Blaschke-Thompson and their research team started TAP in Otsego County in June of 2008 to study the physical and mental health effects of loneliness and isolation in people over the age of 60, and how technological sharing could mitigate these effects. Approximately 90 older adults participated in the six month program with the intention of increasing their level of comfort, knowledge and security using online connective tools. They began using a variety of programs such as email, Skype, genealogy research, sharing photos, downloading music and other applications.

OCCOA director Dona Wishart observed enthusiastic reactions to different applications as TAP developed. “People grabbed on to email quite readily,” said Wishart. “The topic that generated the most excitement was Skype. Email, as well as the introduction to the groundbreaking visual interface of a Skype call, changed the way many seniors connect with friends and family. Many continue to explore tech individually, and are now teaching other seniors to do the same.”

Connecting with loved ones, engaging in new challenges and sharing in new ways showed positive physical and mental health effects on participants. When TAP concluded in 2011, Professor Freddolino and his team published their findings, laying a foundation for subsequent programs.

“The program itself was very powerful, and certainly brought a new adventure to participants. It was a means to adding meaning and quality to life,” said Wishart.

TAP also revealed a mass interest in many seniors to learn and engage with new technology. When TAP closed, OCCOA began the Computer Club, a group meeting monthly to discuss topics decided by the participants and offering 4 to 6 week instructional programs.

“Participation fluctuates depending on the topic being presented,” said Wishart, though Skype, genealogy records and email continue to draw new, interest. TAP also showed that one-on-one peer engagement, dubbed the Peer Tutor Model, was the most effective learning strategy. “Today we have six to eight tutors from TAP, as well as other volunteers,” said Wishart of the ongoing Computer Club classes.

TAP and the Computer Club are laying a path for seniors to access the information superhighway and bridging the digital divide across age and generations. To learn more about the OCCOA, the Computer Club and TAP, visit them online or read the TAP report here.

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