Taking the fear out of computers for Chilliwack seniors

Tutor Leona Polnau (left) and Betty Cosgrave working on computer skills. - Cornelia Naylor
Tutor Leona Polnau (left) and Betty Cosgrave working on computer skills.
— image credit: Cornelia Naylor

Chilliwack senior Betty Cosgrave is no chicken. When her children left home, she travelled the world—mostly on her own—and even at age 79 she wasn’t afraid to go ziplining through the jungles of Chile.

Her new laptop, however, was a different story.

It sat unused for months after the 86-year-old marched into the Source to buy it a year and a half ago, determined no longer to be left behind by the wave of technology sweeping the world farther and farther from her reach.

“Everybody else has computers, kids have computers, what’s wrong with me keeping my brain working?” Cosgrave said.

But once she had bought her laptop, she was stuck—held back by a lack of basic know-how and worried she’d make a mistake that would mess things up.

“I just looked at it, and I wasn’t up to any thing,” she said. “I had to have a teacher.”

Enter Leona Polnau, volunteer with the Chilliwack Learning Community Society’s (CLCS) adult-to-adult tutoring program.

Matched with Cosgrave about a year ago, she now has the independent senior flipping open her laptop with confidence, surfing the web and sending emails.

“I love the email,” Cosgrave said. “It keeps me communicating with other people, you know. I live alone, so I just email people and, sure enough, I get messages back from them. It’s fun.”

Besides connecting Cosgrave to the online world, Polnau is also helping her connect with her past. The two have been using the laptop to record Cosgrave’s memoirs.

Like many seniors, she’s got quite a story to tell, from growing up in Depression-era Toronto, when horses and buggies still trotted through the urban streets and a poor kid could still get rickets, to actually witnessing the Hindenburg disaster as a nine-year-old girl from the “rumble seat” of her stepdad’s car.

“We’re sitting in the back and all of a sudden from nowhere we’re looking around and we see this fire and it’s up in the sky,” Cosgrave said of the historic family trip to visit friends in the U.S. on May 6, 1937, the day the German zeppelin burst into flames and crashed in New Jersey, killing 36 people. “We didn’t know what it was. We were too young to understand all this stuff, but here it was the Hindenburg that was down in a field and they blocked of all the roads. It was unbelievable. I do not like fire, and I think that’s part of what I saw. It scared me.”

Cosgrave works on a little bit of her memoirs each week, and with Polnau’s help will soon be adding images, thanks to the pair’s latest project—Cosgrave’s new scanner/printer.

“Betty amazes me,” CLSC volunteer tutor co-ordinator Marci Bulloch said. “The work that she’s done with her tutor amazes me . . . because when I met Betty, she was afraid to turn this laptop on because she was afraid of what she might do wrong to it.”

Cosgrave is not alone, but Bulloch said seniors without computer skills are becoming increasingly isolated.

Bulloch tells of one active senior who contacted her because he was having trouble keeping up with events at organizations he had been part of for years.

“He wasn’t getting any information because they were no longer phoning or sending out newsletters in the mail,” Bulloch said. “It was all being done online. He didn’t have a computer and he didn’t know how to use the computers at the library, so he didn’t know what was going on with the associations that he’d been a member of for years.”

Up until last year, CLCS would try to partner such seniors up with a tech-savvy tutor like Polnau.

In May 2013, however, the literacy group helped run a free beginner computer class for seniors at Greendale community school.

Demand was overwhelming, and CLCS has since added classes at Rosedale, Yarrow and Central community schools as well.

The University of the Fraser Valley and Elder College also offer computer classes for seniors, but Bulloch said her organization fills a niche for seniors starting from square one.

“We really are at the very bare-bones basic,” she said. “We’re not teaching people how to use Word or Excel. We’re teaching people how to not be afraid of their computer.”

By June, CLCS hopes to expand its offering again by bringing some basic technology tutoring to local retirement home residents who might not be able to get out to the classes.

The Silver Surfers program will see seniors trained as tutors and armed with CLCS iPads go into the homes and teach interested residents how to use the technology.

“The point of the program is to increase the social inclusion of seniors,” Bulloch said. “It’s also to support volunteerism among seniors.”

CLCS has already secured $25,000 in funding through the federal government’s New Horizons for Seniors Program and purchased 12 iPads.

They hope to train tutors for the program this month.

Demand for her organization’s services tells Bulloch seniors don’t want to be left behind anymore when it comes to technology, but meeting that demand is becoming increasingly difficult.

She said her organization needs more tech-savvy citizens to volunteer.

A basic working knowledge of how to use a computer is all tutors need, since most seniors are more interested in sending emails than learning about the workings for their computer’s central processing unit.

“They don’t need to know how the toaster works to make toast,” Bulloch said.

Polnau, for example, is an accountant and doesn’t consider herself a computer expert.

“The tools of my trade are a laptop, printer and all the high tech stuff,” she said. “I’m not a techie, but I do know a fair bit, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll pass this information on.’”

With school teachers in her family, Polnau considered teaching as a career at one time, but made it an extra-curricular pastime at different times of her life instead.

“I do enjoy teaching,” she said. “I do enjoy helping people.”

For Cosgrave, she said the key has been mostly patience as she has helped the senior conquered her fear of technology.

While she still has some apprehensions, Cosgrave is confident her tutor’s efforts will pay off in the end.

“It takes a long time for me to get it, but once I do, watch out; there’s no stopping me,” she said.

How you can help

The Chilliwack Learning Community Society (CLCS) volunteer tutor program brings together adults who’ve got something to teach and adults who’ve got something to learn.

Whether it’s help with conversational English, technology, reading, writing or math learners are after, the program will try to find a tutor to match their learning goal.

Funded by a Community Adult Literacy Program grant from the Ministry of Advanced Education, the program is free for learners and volunteers. To become a tutor, volunteers complete 15 hours of classroom instruction.

Once trained, they are matched with a learner based on interests and availability, and the duo then meets about once a week until the learner meets his or her goal.

Program co-ordinators are on hand throughout to provide learning materials, guidance and support.

A new program just starting, called Silver Surfers, will soon place volunteer tutors with iPads in select retirement homes to work with small groups of seniors.

Volunteers who only wish to participate with Silver Surfers will take a shorter training session, part of which will be iPad specific.

iPads will be provided.

• To find out more about the volunteer tutor program, email or call Marci at 604-701-9794.

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