Connecting older adults to technology​​​​

​‘Computer Comfort’ classes, taught by Washington University undergraduates, introduce seniors to the Internet, email, Skype

Erin Kim, a freshman at Olin Business School, helps Dr. Elsie Meyers navigate a Macbook Sept. 19 in the Active Learning Lab in Bauer Hall in the new “Computer Comfort” class being offered for area seniors. (Credit: Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photo Services)

Apps. Cloud. Hashtag.

Leon Golfin, 91, brought a small notebook filled with these vexing technology terms and others to his first “Computer Comfort” class at Washington University on St. Louis.

One by one, Vaibhav Sharma, a sophomore at Olin Business School, explained the concepts, using a computer to demonstrate how to access “the cloud.”

“OK, what about URL?” Golfin asked.

Sharma was stumped. He typed, “What does URL mean,” in the search field.

“ ‘Uniform resource locator,’ ” Sharma answered. “See what I did there? I just typed the question, and Google gave me the answer.

“That’s how the world runs now,” Sharma added with a laugh. “No one knows anything. We just ask the computer.”

Golfin was among 20 seniors from five Bethesda senior living facilities to attend the free, two-hour session Sept. 19 at the Active Learning Lab in Bauer Hall. Hosted by Olin, the classes will welcome other senior living residents throughout the fall.

Student volunteers, lead by Sharma and Eduardo Jacobo, also a sophomore in Olin, showed participants how to turn on their computers, pick a password and navigate the Internet. The tutors also set up email accounts and taught them how to send, and open, email.

“Now you can receive email from your families,” Sharma said. “It’s a great way to stay in touch.”

Frank worked with Olin admininstration to develop the ‘Computer Comfort’ classes. (Credit: JOE ANGELES/WUSTL Photo services)

The program is the brainchild of 89-year old Harris Frank, a former Bethesda resident who had his own struggles mastering the computer.

Frank worked closely with Mahendra Gupta, PhD, dean of the Olin Business School and the Geraldine J. and Robert L. Virgil Professor of Accounting and Management, and Steve Malter, PhD, associate dean and director for undergraduate programs, to develop the program. He believes it can serve as a model nationwide.

“I knew the things that frightened me when I first started to use the computer — like hitting the wrong button and identity theft,” said Frank, who now uses his computer to pay his bills and Skype with his daughters. “This class is providing seniors exactly what the title promises – comfort.”

One participant used her new expertise to find a recipe for banana bread; another discovered how to open his brokerage statements. But Golfin’s goal was to step up his emailing acumen.

“I’ve been fumbling around the computer, punching this button, punching that button,” said Golfin, a retired chemical engineer. “Some things work, some things didn’t. But I want to get into email so I can stay close to my daughters.”

Freshman Jameson Cook (left) works with Jim Groetsch, 80, while sophomore Eduardo Jacobo tutors Marie Sweeney, 87. (Credit: JOE ANGELES/WUSTL photo services)

Strengthening relatioships – that’s the real value of technology, Jacobo said. He helped his grandparents, who live in Puerto Rico, learn to use their computers and smartphones.

“Now, they text me photos and stories from home. It means a lot to them, and to me, too,” Jacobo said. “It can be hard for seniors who live away from their families. They can feel isolated from their families or even from the broader culture. But we’ve showed them that staying connected doesn’t have to be intimidating.”