Tech support for seniors
The pandemic created an urgent need among seniors to learn how to use video-conferencing and social media tools
by CHRIS POWELL
In addition to a wide variety of tech products, Costco also offers its free Concierge tech-support service to Costco members who have purchased any of a variety of tech items from Costco warehouses or at Costco.ca.
The past 18 months led to the emergence of video-conferencing technologies like Zoom and FaceTime® to help people maintain contact with friends and loved ones, providing a crucial means of connectivity when physical contact wasn’t possible.
Like so much modern technology, however, it carries a risk that Canada’s older population—arguably the group most in need of such services—might be left behind.
Need for support
That point was acutely driven home to Daniel Marrello of Toronto during the early days of the pandemic, when he saw his grandparents, both in their early 80s, struggling to understand online tools like video conferencing and social media.
“It dawned on us how many other seniors don’t have access to resources to help them out,” says Marrello. “But it’s really just them having to get over the learning curve, and they can be just as proficient as everybody else.”
That led Marrello and his brother David to create TechServeTO (techserveto.com), a free online service that uses a volunteer group of about 175 tech-savvy millennials to provide support to seniors. Since launching in April, the service has provided assistance to 1,600, older Canadians.
Originally created to serve the Toronto market, its footprint has since grown to include Quebec, Vancouver and, more recently, Florida—a long-time winter haven for Canadian seniors.
Ravinder Sandhu was having trouble printing some important documents on her networked printer when she came across a story about TechServeTO on a TV newscast. The Ottawa-area retiree and Costco member had been struggling to get help from her internet service provider and was growing increasingly desperate to find a solution.
“You call these big tech companies and you can’t even get them to answer the phone, let alone solve your problem,” she says. “So I thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’ At worst [TechServeTO] is going to say they’re not serving my area.”
She turned to the TechServeTO website and managed to secure a booking with a volunteer representative just two days later. During a 45-minute, one-on-one Zoom session, the TechServeTO representative patiently guided her through the steps to download the necessary software to fix the problem.
“When I think about that experience now, it makes me glow with warmth,” Sandhu tells the Connection. “I cannot think of a better example of someone putting their talents and skills to use, because this mostly affects seniors.”
She continues, “Our banking, grocery shopping and public services went online.
Imagine the frustration at the inability to get access to technical know-how. We can’t communicate without the internet and all of these gadgets.”
The need for services of this kind has never been more acute, agrees Brenda Rusnak, managing director of Toronto-based Cyber-Seniors (cyberseniors.org). Launched in 2015 Cyber-Seniors (which arose out of an award-winning documentary of the same name) trains younger volunteers to act as so-called “tech mentors” for seniors.
The past year has been particularly busy, with Rusnak saying that Cyber-Seniors has trained about 2000 young Canadians who have provided tech assistance to more than 10,000 seniors across Canada and the U.S. According to Rusnak, people between the ages of 65 and 74 represent the largest portion of Cyber-Seniors’ user base (39%), followed by those age 75 to 84 (26%) and those age 55 to 64 (14%).
“We started off with a primary goal of addressing social isolation among older adults,” Rusnak tells the Connection. “And when COVID hit, it became more evident that [videoconferencing] is a means of communication seniors have to have.”
Chris Powell is a Toronto-based journalist.