A New Frontier

Teaching older adults the latest technology

June 23, 2018

Allan Kleiman, director of Montville Township (N.J.) Public Library

Technology can be alienating and frustrating for seniors, but panelists at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference & Exhibition in New Orleans on June 23 explained the many ways gadgets and apps can help provide library services to older patrons. Nann Blaine Hilyard, former director of Zion-Benton (Ill.) Public Library and secretary of the Retired Members Round Table, moderated.

Fatima Perkins, community outreach and advocacy director at Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging in Cleveland, illustrated the many opportunities libraries will have in coming years to meet needs of older adults and caregivers as demographics shift rapidly. The number of Americans over 65 is projected to more than double from 46 million today to more than 98 million by 2060. That senior cohort is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse with wide economic disparities, she added. Older adults are also working longer; nearly 20% of people over 65 are still in the workforce.

Taina Evans, coordinator for older adult services at Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), spelled out some of the barriers and misconceptions that older people have about technology, including fears of hacking, feelings of inadequacy or apprehension, a lack of support, and a belief that gadgets and apps are for young people. BPL has offered services to seniors for decades, Evans said, so they have looked for ways to incorporate technology into existing programs, such as language-learning programs, photography classes that use cellphones instead of cameras, and job readiness training that helps older patrons create LinkedIn profiles instead of paper resumes.

BPL’s Never Too Late to Learn classes about computers have been most successful in the mornings or after lunch—that is, before kids come in after school, Evans said. The classes have focused on potentially intimidating topics such as password security, storage, and devices and have gone at a slower pace. BPL has also integrated Alexa and Google Home devices into programs for playing games, improving memory skills, translating, listening to TED talks, and even telling jokes to help older users get comfortable with the devices. A Library Lanes event allows teams at different branches to compete using Xbox One virtual bowling. The teams can hear each other through the gaming system, allowing for some friendly smack talk among players.

Allan Kleiman, director of Montville Township (N.J.) Public Library, reminded attendees, “You are the technology training hub of the community,” and shared how even small libraries with small budgets can incorporate technology into senior programming.

Kleiman uses a multilayered approach. The first layer is the staff member on the reference desk. Make sure that person has handouts for patrons and that your website can help people who have questions about their gadgets. The second layer consists of offering classes in the library to teach patrons how to use a cellphone, download books, and take pictures on their phones. These can be taught by staffers or, for more advanced topics like network security, by an outside IT person. The third layer is a teen advisory board that offers drop-in tech help. “It’s really cute,” Kleiman said. Seniors are often too polite to ask questions in a class, but they will ask the teens (who work with the teen librarian), who remind them of their grandkids.

Roger Goldblatt, deputy chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission, said the main reason seniors may not be online is not necessarily cost but relevancy. They may not use gadgets and online tools the way a 20-year-old would, so find ways to make technology relevant. He noted that the big trends in tech for older users are independence and wellness—products that set reminders and alerts, wearable tech like Fitbits, voice assistants, and on-demand services like laundry and grocery delivery. Peer-to-peer learning is often best, so find opportunities for older patrons to train each other.

Perkins closed with a list of funding assistance and other resources, including Keys to Engaging Older Adults @ Your Library, Grants.gov, Foundation Center, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and Guidelines for Library Services with 60+ Audiences: Best Practices.


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