There are now more Americans age 65 or older than ever before. Many of these seniors are trying to use new technology but need help operating electronic devices like smartphones. If a senior is unable to use technology, it puts him at risk for social isolation which can lead to poor health and earlier death. In addition, social isolation accounts for nearly $7 billion of additional annual spending by Medicare, according to a study by AARP.
As a solution to this growing problem, a startup company in Albuquerque has created Teeniors. This program matches tech-savvy young people with seniors to coach them on using smartphones, computers, and tablets.
The idea was born in 2015 when Trish Lopez, founder of Teeniors, realized her mother needed help. "She'd lose a password, she'd lose a document and then she didn't know some simple commands like Control Z that could undo everything she had just done," Lopez said. "And so she would start all over again."
The program has helped more than 3,000 seniors in New Mexico. In 2018, it added a nonprofit arm and has received grants from Comcast and Facebook to serve those who cannot afford to pay.
Lopez says the mission is to empower senior citizens. So far, this has been the case for many of the program's members. For example, 76-year-old Camilla Dorcey can now easily answer and talk on her phone. Previously, she didn't know how to answer her phone. "People would be ringing me and I didn't know how to answer it," Dorcey said. "I'd be crying and frustrated and feeling totally useless and old."
In addition, Teeniors has helped Dorcey communicate even with those across the world. As a retired teacher, Dorcey lived all over the world before moving to Albuquerque. When her husband died suddenly, she was isolated and too ashamed to admit she didn't know how to answer her new phone. When she tried to get help at stores, the clerks were no help to her. Now, Dorcey has a Teenior who helped her download WhatsApp. This app enables her to speak with family and friends regularly in Africa and Europe for free.
"Oh it's amazing," Dorcey said. "I can see them. I can talk to them. It's really been great. I feel free again."
In another case, 81-year-old Linda Haverty has been learning how to use social media to connect with her family. Haverty's family is scattered throughout the Midwest and technology is vital to staying connected with them. "Yesterday I was going through Facebook and found out I have a great-grandson that was born on my birthday...and I didn't know about it," she said.
A study from the Pew Research Center found that 4 in 10 seniors own smartphones but lack confidence in learning and using their devices. Programs like Teeniors give seniors the ability, confidence, and freedom to extend their social lives by means of technology.
"I think that's why we've been so successful," Lopez said. "The intergenerational learning experience is really remarkable and that's why I always say the main service we provide is not tech support. It is human connection."
This program doesn't just benefit seniors; it also teaches important skills to the teens. Teaching seniors how to use technology requires patience and listening, both fundamental skills for young people. It teaches soft skills such as emotional intelligence, problem-solving, and communication.
Lopez has been surprised by the feedback she has received from various teens. "Some of them believe it's helped them overcome their depression and anxiety and struggles in their personal relationships," she said. "Just the work of being a Teenior, for the small amount of hours they do it every month, has made an enormous impact on their lives."
For 17-year-old Tess Reynolds, the Teenior who helped Dorcey, Teeniors has convinced her she wants to become a senior home health aide . She says she can relate to these seniors because she has a learning disability and people used to push her to finish her homework more quickly. However, she understands the need to slow down and take more time to learn. "I know how it feels to be rushed," Reynolds said. "I want to make sure that doesn't happen."
Likewise, 21-year-old Kendra Gonzales has benefited from Teeniors. Gonzales has been with Teeniors for four years and it has helped her land jobs and decide on a career in public service. She's currently working toward a criminal justice degree and feels she learned skills like public speaking and coaching while at Teeniors.
"[I learned] things that I don't think the school system helped me with," Gonzales said. "This has helped me more, in a great way."
Twenty-four-year-old Yannick Hutchinson feels similarly. He just graduated with an architecture degree and said being part of Teeniors will help him communicate better with clients. It also helped when he was struggling with depression. "It was definitely something that pulled me back from that dark, dark area," he said. "It was nice, it was a breath of fresh air."
Teeniors is not the only program like it to exist. Donna Butts, Executive Director of Generations United, says intergenerational programs offer alternatives to our tendency to segregate people by age. "We really are much stronger when we're together and value the wisdom of older adults and the energy and new experience of young people," she said.