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Empowering senior citizens with technology skills

Older adults in the U.S. are looking to stay independent and in their homes. Technology can help them connect with loved ones, continue learning, and take care of basic needs, from telehealth visits to grocery deliveries.

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By 2030, 1 of every 5 people in the United States — or 20% of the nation's population — will be age 65 or older. Source: U.S. Census

“Alexia has gone out of town. She won’t answer. We tried her five times. Anyway, what do we do?”

Liz Hamburg was getting more half-joking voicemails like this from her father. He was an early tech adopter but sometimes needed help troubleshooting devices and apps such as Amazon’s Alexa, which he called “Alexia.” As he got older, macular degeneration and some hearing and mobility issues made it even more challenging to keep up with the latest technology that he was always first in line to buy. 

The Apple Genius Bar and Best Buy Geek Squad’s tech support, which he had used for years, “just weren’t cutting it for him anymore,” Hamburg said. 

“That’s when, as a daughter, I was looking for a solution,” she said. “And as an entrepreneur, I realized that there really wasn’t a patient, empathetic, easy to understand, and affordable tech support and training solution that was specifically designed for older adults.”  

Hamburg founded Candoo Tech, of which she is CEO, in February 2019 to fill that gap. The company provides tech support and training designed for older adults to help them do everything from set up devices to answering their questions like, “Why isn’t Alexa responding?” 

Services such as Candoo are springing up at a time when the U.S. is becoming a country of older people, the AARP reports. By 2030, an estimated 20% of the population will be age 65 and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And by 2034, there could be more people over age 65 than under age 18, which would be a first in U.S. history.

Candoo Tech founder and CEO Liz Hamburg with her father, Morton Hamburg, whose need for technology support inspired her to create the company. (Photo courtesy of Candoo Tech)

This growing contingent of older adults is looking to remain independent, and that often includes keeping up with the latest tech that can help them stay connected to loved ones, continued learning and taking care of basic needs, from telemedicine visits to grocery deliveries. 

Nearly 90% of people age 65 and older say they want to age in place and stay in their home as long as possible, said Rodney Harrell, AARP’s vice president of family, home and community. AARP, which has 38 million members, is a nonprofit group focused on empowering people to choose how they live as they age. 

“The challenge is that our homes and communities aren’t necessarily designed for that,” Harrell said. Across various studies, usually less than 5% of homes have the features people tend to need as they get older, Harrell said.

AARP recently teamed up with the nonprofit Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) to empower people to “age with attitude,”as Ryan Kawamoto puts it, by using technology to help them remain independent. OATS’ flagship program, Senior Planet, offers free programming to help older adults thrive in the digital world.

“It’s not just about how you turn on and off an iPad, but how you use that iPad to really enhance your life,” said Kawamoto, regional director for Senior Planet from AARP@Avenidas in Palo Alto, California, one of the physical locations run by OATS. 

When the pandemic hit, OATS made its programs available online so older adults would be able to safely participate from home. The organization provides 40 programs every week, with lessons on topics ranging from protecting privacy online to following updates from elected officials on Twitter. 

“Our programming is really meant to feed that curiosity and build support around enhancing the use of technology and breaking through whatever fear or barriers there are to using technology,” Kawamoto said.

“To see the change that we’re able to make with our older adult participants, even after one session, has been just really wonderful,” he said.  

GetSetUp co-founders Neil Dsouza, left, and Lawrence Kosick on Feb. 10, 2021, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Molly Martuza)

Equipping older adults with the confidence and skills to use technology has become even more vital during the Covid-19 pandemic. Older adults are more susceptible to the disease, but in the digital age, they need to understand technology to access the information they need to stay safe. 

“You have all of this information — overwhelming amounts of information — and it’s almost exclusively available online,” said Lawrence Kosick, co-founder of GetSetUp, an online community with more than half a million learners.

“Older adults who are most impacted by Covid are being instructed to go online and figure out where and how to sign up to get the vaccine,” Kosick said. “But all of this assumes that there’s enough basic technology knowledge that they know how to find the right websites, then navigate to the right places on the website, then fill out the forms on the website.”  

The challenge is that older adults often have a hesitancy and an intimidation around learning new tech, Kosick said. That can be exacerbated by not acknowledging how they learn best. Younger adults may try to teach things with a different vocabulary or at a different speed, he said. But when older adults teach each other, “there’s a similar speed, cadence and empathy,” which drives the GetSetUp approach.

“It helps remove the fear and reluctance for older adults to learn new things because they see somebody on the Zoom call who’s done it and can help them at their pace,” Kosick said. 

Candoo’s Hamburg has also witnessed such transformations. 

A Candoo Tech client, right, receives support in New York before the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Candoo Tech)

“We’ve seen people with their hand shaking or their hearts beating; they have this visceral reaction,” she said. “And at the end of the visit, we’ll see this huge smile. They’re like, ‘I can do it.’”  

There are lessons to be learned from older adults, too, Hamburg notes. 

One Candoo client, Bill, needed help early in the pandemic using his iPhone to take photos and send them to his doctor. Bill’s daughter connected him with Candoo, and one of the company’s tech concierges helped Bill navigate the process of taking and emailing pictures from his smartphone. At the end of the help session with Candoo, Bill revealed it was his 105th birthday. 

“You are never too old to learn,” Hamburg said. 

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I think getting tech help is like understanding that you need glasses or a hearing aid--I probably need all of the above but I don't like the idea of it. But it's something to get past in order to remain active and intellectually engaged. If you don't have access and know-how with digital tools, you will get left behind.

Alisha Green

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