Tech-savvy volunteers show ‘whole new world’ to seniors on their cellphones and computers

Margaret Anne Lacasse is a pro in the garden, but like many other seniors, the 81-year-old was too intimidated to dig in to technology.

The Gatineau, Que., resident said her idea of tech was a typewriter or adding machine.

“I never, ever used any type of technology,” said Lacasse. “Ever.

“You feel like you don’t belong in this generation.”

That changed after Lacasse discovered Connected Canadians — a non-profit group based in Ottawa, Ont.

Connected Canadians pairs volunteers with older adults to teach them how to set up and navigate their iPads and cellphones.

Founders Emily Jones Joanisse and Tas Damen started the group before the pandemic after they noticed an urgent need for tech support for seniors.

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The pandemic has amplified that need.

Read more: Elderly mother and daughter keep critical connection with technology

“Our goal is to provide free digital support to all seniors within Canada,” said Damen. She stressed Connected Canadians wants to make that happen by 2030.

“We feel it’s a basic human need and it should be available to all seniors within Canada.”

Jones Joanisse said people in their 90s have been taught how to use technology through the program. One of their members was 101.

“If they want to learn, we’re here to help them,” said Jones Joanisse.

“People in this world need connection.”

Jones Joanisse knew the program was making a difference after a 94-year-old woman learned how to work a tablet — even though she had never before used a computer.

“We showed her a whole new world, literally. She was then able to connect with family in Italy and all different places.

“The barrier, most of the time, is a psychological barrier,” said Jones Joanisse. “It’s not that they’re not smart enough… they believe, ‘Maybe I can’t do this because I’m too old.’”

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Read more: Grandparents take new skills into their golden years post pandemic

When Connected Canadians launched in 2018 the volunteer tech mentors would set up in retirement homes and coffee shops which allowed seniors to ask questions face-to-face.

Over the pandemic, the training has moved to virtual or over the phone.

Lacasse said her volunteer talked to her over her landline, and led her step-by-step on how to set up an Amazon Echo device.

“They’re so easy to talk to and they’re extremely helpful,” said Lacasse. “It’s like a friend on the phone — very, very enjoyable.

“They don’t seem to mind repeating things a few times.”

Lacasse said her daily routine now involves a chat with Alexa — asking her about the weather, daily news and to play classical music while she tolls away at her flowers.

“Not in a million years did I think I’d be talking to a computer!”

Amazon Canada has partnered with Connected Canadians and donated 504 Echo Show devices to the program.

Damen said hands-free devices are a great fit for seniors.

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“We can really provide devices to seniors who find it difficult to type because voice command is a really big thing,” Damen said.

“Simple things like adding reminders or asking if a pharmacy down the street is open is a really big win.”

Damen talked about one senior in the program who had paralysis on one side of her body. She was isolated and not able to attend events during the pandemic.

After learning how to use digital devices, that woman was able to do language classes in her community.

“I remember seeing her and her face lit up and she said, ‘For five months I’ve been doing nothing and now I can see my friends.’”

Damen herself also gained a priceless connection. She had mentored a blind senior who was a retired engineer.

She taught him how to navigate his Echo to do audio book streaming. He gave her advice in the engineering field.

It’s that collaboration that has attracted more than 70 mentor volunteers to the program.

Many are new immigrants and use the experience to practice their English. They give their free time after work or some companies sponsor employees and allow them to provide tech advice during their work day.

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Jones Joanisse emphasized that digital skills allow seniors to not only interact with their grandchildren, but it does so much more.

“It also allows them to have a voice in today’s digital society and be able to express themselves and share the knowledge they’ve acquired over their lives.”

Lacasse has knowledge to share. Her son, Gary Lacasse, said, “get in the garden with her and a techy would be lost.

“She is loving Alexa. She has a new appreciation for technology.”

It has given Lacasse the courage to learn more. She plans to tackle her computer next.

For other seniors scared of technology, Lacasse said they’re misising out.

“Technology is the way of the future — like it or not.

“Just do it.”

Connected Canadians can be reached toll free at 1-877-304-5813.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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