Seniors face world of Zoom calls

Michael Cohen joins a Shabbat service in New York with the help of Zoom
Michael Cohen joins a Shabbat service in New York with the help of Zoom (Michael Cohen)

By Shannon Levitt and Jesse Berman

Skype calls with grandchildren and emails might have made up the bulk of seniors’ dealings with technology until the coronavirus pandemic upended their daily lives and interactions. Fast-forward and some octogenarians can be found hopping on a Zoom call to attend Shabbat services or hosting a happy hour with friends. Others are finding technology’s many offerings overwhelming and even frightening.

Finding the on/off button

According to Melanie Waxman, the tech knowledge hub concierge at the Edward A. Myerberg Center, senior members of the Myerberg Center who have been working to improve their technical know-how have been “doing an unbelievably excellent job, from the self-starters and the grassroots to the top-down classes being offered and the amount of people taking them. It’s just unbelievable.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Myerberg Center has been offering virtual classes on technology, humanities, fitness and art, Waxman explained, with four different technology classes a week as well as one-on-one sessions and Q&A sessions. The most popular class right now, she said, focuses on teaching students the basics of using iPhones and iPads, while others clarify how to use such devices as the Echo Dot from Amazon.

Waxman said that the skill levels between students vary to an extent. “There are people that are learning how to make albums on Shutterfly, and there are people who are learning where the on and off button is,” she said.

Waxman said that many of the students are learning the new technology in order to better communicate with family, friends and their synagogue congregations. Others are going a little more international, including some who use IsraelConnect to help Israeli students in Ashkelon with their English skills, to better prepare them for their college entrance exams.

‘It’s all teachable’

Michael Cohen, 77, is one senior who’s learning new technological skills.

“Before, I did a lot of emailing and a small amount of texting, and that was about it,” he said. No longer in practice as a pediatrician, Cohen still teaches some classes at a medical school in Tucson, Ariz., to which he drives from his home in Chandler, Ariz. After the imposition of stay-at-home orders in March, he immediately switched to teaching on Zoom, a program new to him. His university set him up on the platform, so he only needed to figure out how to open it on his laptop to teach. The only real difficulty was getting his slides uploaded.

Once Cohen got used to his class, he wanted to do more. A self-described “active senior learner,” he wanted to use this new technology to try out classes and services he wouldn’t have considered before. He might not be adept, he said, but he’s tried to learn as much as he can to do the things he enjoys.

“It’s all pretty seamless now,” he said. “I like Shabbat services, and I found a congregation in New York and Los Angeles — it’s been a boon for me.”

Cohen said he is excited about the opportunities virtual programming has opened to him, especially as it concerns Jewish education, a primary interest of his.

“I’m particularly interested in Israel, and I’ve probably watched some kind of internet thing at least five days a week — sometimes I schedule too many,” he joked.

These classes and services will be an enhancement, he said.

“It might lack personal intimacy, but it suffices, and it’s all teachable.”

Persistence is key

Not all seniors are as optimistic about grasping the ins and outs of technology — assuming they even have access to it.

“The first handicap,” said Rabbi Levi Levertov, executive director of Smile on Seniors, “is if they don’t have any technology.”

Even when they have a personal computer or a smartphone, there’s a big learning curve.

“Even people who have it don’t know how to use it,” he said.

Levertov’s program offers tech support, giving him experience teaching Zoom and other platforms. A big problem is that people get frustrated and simply give up. Persistence is key. Some take notes when he teaches them new things, which helps considerably.

One difficulty is downloading; another is switching between programs. He said he often sees people have inadvertently switched to something else in their browser, and they don’t know how to get back to the Zoom call even though he can see they’re still active.

But he’s witnessed many successes as well. He enjoyed hearing from a senior that she was now setting up her own Zoom happy hours with her friends. He remembered when he had to walk her through joining a call. And every day he offers seniors programming on Zoom.

“There are people at home, and you clearly see they are not going out, and they’re craving for that social connection,” he said. “They’re drinking this in once they get it — it’s something that’s needed right now.”

Silver linings

Frustrations abound, but many seniors have found that there’s a lot to like about platforms like Zoom. The ability to do things from the comfort of home is a huge relief to many seniors who don’t have access to transportation or are fearful of driving in the dark or by themselves. Levertov said he intends to keep a lot of virtual programs going given how many people weren’t able to attend things before.

“This has opened up something we never considered or thought of,” he said.

Cohen hopes that institutions consider keeping this modality of streaming and Zooming post-coronavirus.

“It is far more compatible for the lifestyle of seniors than driving someplace — especially at night,” he said. “You lose something in the translation from in-person meetings, but there’s ways around that.”

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