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Seniors Struggle With Loneliness. This Tech Program Is Trying To Help

Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio

Two hundred and thirty five graduation certificates were served up with mashed potatoes and green beans at a local cafeteria Tuesday. It was the largest class of over-60s to graduate from the Senior Planet program in San Antonio. Courses teach computer basics, social media and connecting online. Classes try to tackle social isolation among seniors with internet skills.

Senior Frank Sarabia says he didn’t grow up with or work with computers.

“I never had experience. I knew what a computer was, but I didn’t know how to turn it on, or where to go, but now I know,” he said.

After a 10-week course focused on computer basics, he knows how to connect to the internet and use email.

Senior citizens make up one of the largest groups unable to use computers and the internet. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 14 million older Americans live alone. While it isn’t an inherent problem, research shows a connection between high blood pressure, heart disease, depression and cognitive decline to social isolation and loneliness.

Nonprofit Older Adults Technology Services, or OATS, uses the program Senior Planet to increase digital literacy for seniors to break down that isolation.

Digital literacy among seniors is lower than other groups. According to Pew Research Center, smartphone and tablet ownership as well as social media usage has steadily grown in the demographic.

“Really, I see a change in their quality of life,” said Karly Dallas, a Senior Planet technology trainer at the Northeast Senior Center. “I have one student in particular who has taken three of my classes, and he told me that every single class had a direct impact on his life in one way or another.

This seemingly small step can keep older people healthier and happier, Dallas said, who highlighted how one student accessed health services and changed his diet by going online.

The free program Senior Planet started at four community centers in San Antonio in October 2018 with a large Humana Foundation grant. It has since blossomed into more than 20 centers teaching classes of varying levels. Tuesday's graduation was the program's third.

Senior Planet said the 350 seniors were at high risk of social isolation, which it measures with a metrics like whether they lived alone, are low-income or have a disability.

"We hope that they will stay a part of Senior Planet, consider taking another class,” said Deanne Cuellar, state director for OATS. “We also hope that now they are using technology that they feel the world is not passing them by and feel empowered to use technology more."

The New York-based nonprofit OATS has a goal of graduating 1,000 people by October.

Absolutely, we are on track, said Darryl Greer, Senior Planet program lead. "It's really expanding exponentially."

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org