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March 07, 2014 10:15 PM

Connecting To Community

Sioux Falls, SD

Learning the latest technology is considered to be the realm of the young, but now seniors citizens are becoming more familiar with tablets and apps than some 20 year olds.

In the US, people over the age of 65 are among the fastest growing groups to go online. A pilot program in KELOLAND is designed to bring more seniors to the world wide web-- particularly those at risk of social isolation.

Over the last six months, Ellen Westhoff went from learning what an iPad is to using email, facebook, pinterest and even tumbler.

"It's hard because we didn't have any of this. It is totally new," Westhoff said.

The 80-year-old great-grandmother is participating in weekly classes put on by the AARP Foundation, the Good Sameritan's society and USD.

Connecting to Community is part of a pilot program to help seniors get to know touch-screen technology in effort to combat loneliness.

"We know that social isolation can lead to medical issues, psychosocial issues, and we know by keeping people engaged and social that we are keeping them healthy," Stacy Smallfield said.

When we first met the group in September, the seniors were learning how to send an email to the person sitting next to them. But first, they needed to be taught how to use the touch-screen.

"It's been amazing the type of things that they are more confident with the iPad, they are connecting with their family and friends from far away," Betsy Haag said, a volunteer trainer. "They are seeing what it's like to be connected online and I think they know more than they think they do."

"Most of us older people don't know how to communicate with technology, and my children kept saying, 'Mother, you have to learn how,'" Westhoff said.

While it hasn't been easy, some of the original 55 participants are going down the information highway at lightning speed. Westhoff's focused on email and Facebook, allowing her to stay in touch with her 28 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren.

"One of my great-granddaughters, her father, my grandson, passed away," Westhoff said. "I really never got to know her and now something almost every day that I hear from her on Facebook."

Volunteers from USD teach the twice-a-week classes.

The first pilot program launched in Washington D.C., but organizers wanted to bring the iPad classes to a more "rural" part of the country.

"Everyone has a story to tell," Smallfield said. "It's all about connecting to each other. The technology is the vehicle but it's not, in and of itself the most important thing."

Throughout the class, Stacy Smallfield and others from USD conducted research to help the pilot program. They focused on things like the social impact, technology acceptance and changes in daily routine. Even though the program is almost over, participants are expected to keep in touch with each other online.

For Westhoff, she says the benefits have been worth the effort it took to learn how to use the once-intimidating technology.

"I am so fortunate that I've been given this opportunity to do this class," Westhoff said. "Something we will never forget. It's wonderful."

AARP hasn't announced any specifics where the program will go next, but organizers say they are looking for other opportunities for Connected To Community.

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