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San Francisco seniors cross the digital divide

Jen Chien
Computer students John Ryland and Mary Bartholomew at 30th Street Senior Center

Mary Bartholomew is a senior citizen. A couple years ago, she didn’t know much about computers, or how to use the internet. And one day she found herself in a bit of a pickle.


“I was trying to find somebody that had asked me years ago for some pictures. Very special pictures,” says Bartholomew.

She had found the pictures but didn’t know where this woman lived or how to contact her. So she called a mutual friend, who happened to be Facebook friends with the woman she was looking for.

Bartholomew says, “I don't know what she did, but she did something where she sent a private note to the lady I was trying to find and said, ‘You know Mary has the pictures you want. Call her at such and such a number.’ In half an hour, the lady called me! I was so amazed!”

After meeting up with her long-lost friend and giving her the long-awaited pictures, Bartholomew decided there was something to this social media thing after all. So she enrolled herself in computer classes at the 30th Street Senior Center in San Francisco. Bartholomew says that before her first class, using a computer was a frightening prospect.

“If you're learning a new language, you're intimidated because you don't know what to talk about, and you don't know your vocabulary. With the computer, I didn't even know what to ask,” she says.

Getting seniors comfortable with using technology is the aim of SF Connected, the City initiative that administers the class at 30th Street Senior Center. The program provides free computer training throughout the city for seniors and adults with disabilities, through partnerships with community-based organizations.

Aaron Low is the program manager for SF Connected. He says the city’s services for seniors have traditionally concentrated on basic needs like transportation or nutrition, but he believes the ability to use technology is  akin to nutrition for the mind.

“If you only have nutrition to your body without keeping some of the other mental abilities, the expansion of all those other things, then half of you is just kind of starving,” says Low.

He says there are real practical concerns, too, with more government services moving online. He’s heard that people won’t be able to get paper copies of reports.

“And if that’s not available on paper anymore for these folks, how are they going to get it? They have to be able to get online,” he says.

Many San Francisco seniors are low-income, and many live alone. So they’re at high risk for isolation, which can have serious health consequences. That’s why SF Connected has about 250 computers, configured in 6 languages, in more than 55 locations all around the city.  

Staying in Touch

Anne Hinton is head of the city’s Department of Aging and Adult Services, which oversees the initiative. She says one of the goals with the computers is to make sure that people have the ability to stay involved in their communities.

“So whether that be what’s going on at City Hall, or talking to their doctor, or being in contact with family members or friends in other places, I just think that the computers really offer that opportunity for connectedness,” says Hinton.

Tricia Webb not only understands that need for connectedness, she lives it. Webb is homebound. She has cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus, and she’s legally blind. She spends her days and nights in a hospital bed in the living room of her apartment in the Western Addition. Although only 56, Webb identifies as a senior.

She says she still remembers how she felt the first time she encountered a computer.

“Scared to death!” she says. “I was like, ‘I won't touch nothing, ‘cause I ain't breaking nooothing.’”

But with the help of the Community Living Campaign, one of the main partner organizations of SF Connected, she now has a solid set of tech skills.

“It's amazing: the things, the confidence that I gained from that,” she says. “So now, I social media all over the place, you know!”

From her bed, Webb uses a tablet and a smartphone to keep in touch with the world. She emails and texts, plays online games, and keeps in touch with her family on facebook.

Anne Hinton from the Department of Aging and Adult Services says the way people can move from fear to an embrace of technology is one of the most exciting things about SF Connected.

“You know, one of the myths in this work is that older adults can’t or won’t or don’t want to learn new things,” says Hinton. “[But] we can all learn. We may learn differently as we get older, it may take us a little more time to learn. But people are interested in learning. They just need the opportunity to do it. And a place where they can do that, where they can come back again and again, and get familiar and get comfortable.”

This story was produced through a fellowship from New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, supported by AARP.



This story originally aired on February 19, 2015.

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