Calvert Hall students help seniors navigate new technology

October 19, 2023
By Kurt Jensen

Lesson number one about helping senior citizens navigate technology, mostly laptops and phones: Lean into the generation gap. Accept it. Revel in it. Stumble through it. And always speak slowly.

That’s what one current Calvert Hall College High School student and one former student learned over the summer in the Cyber-Senior program administered by the Baltimore County 4-H extension.

Logan Moon, a Calvert Hall sophomore, is a member of St. Joseph Parish in Cockeysville. Isaac Hawkins is now a sophomore at Georgetown University.

Cyber-Seniors is a nonprofit organization founded in 2015, the outgrowth of a documentary on volunteers who help senior citizens cope with rapidly changing technology.

The Baltimore County program launched in 2020, partnered with the Baltimore County Department of Aging.

From July through August, high school and college students worked with their eager new pupils – 96 in all – at senior centers in Towson, Parkville, Reisterstown, Randallstown, Dundalk and Monkton, with an additional class taught in Hereford for the agricultural community.

The program created videos on YouTube to support long-term learning, and also a four-part podcast series for the Maryland Agriculture Law Education Initiative on topics related to farming. Moon and Hawkins were two of seven digital mentors for the seniors. As is typical in tutoring relationships, they learned as much as they taught, and the first thing they learned was that technology skills are not intuitive.

“For me, personally, patience,” Moon said. “Some are hard of hearing, so you have to speak slowly and ask if they learned anything.”

For Hawkins, it was finding out that “maybe farmers are not well-versed with technology, even though my own grandparents had to use it.”

There were the inevitable cell-phone anecdotes, too.

They encountered one man with 50 apps on his phone that he thought were intended to speed it up. “It did the opposite,” Isaac observed. The learning curve involved explaining the difference between real, functioning apps and fake ones.

And there were small moments of joy, including the man who texted his son for the first time – he was greatly impressed – and a woman they described as “very, very shy” who gained self-confidence with her new communication skills.

Older technology was a big hit as well. The Hereford senior center group appeared resistant to new forms. Not a problem – there was the classic Nintendo Wii.

Seven seniors learned how to operate Wii Sports – still a popular group activity – and Just Dance. To them, it was entirely new; to the students, ancient electronics from 2006.

“We had to tell them that Wii stopped being popular 12 years ago,” Hawkins said.

“From a larger standpoint, this is about providing … an intergenerational service,” said Vernelle Mitchell-Hawkins, Isaac’s mother, who works for the University of Maryland 4-H Extension.

“They got as much out of it as the seniors. To see something bigger than themselves is valuable.”

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