In an extremely basic training class on internet searches at the new Senior Planet in Lowry, it was clear: the students had done this before.
One woman typed in “gratitude” and clicked over to the image search to see pithy paragraphs on gratefulness. Another typed in “crochet patterns” because she’s an avid hobbyist who’d like to set up an Etsy store. Tammy Renteria, typed in her name.
“Ohhh, there’s my obituary,” Renteria said dryly.
Everyone taking the free course laughed.
In this day and age, when 75 is the new 65, many retired adults already know how to use technology. They are familiar with searching, social networking and online security threats because of exposure at past jobs. Attending a training session — many are offered for free — presents social opportunities and community building, or, as is true for any age group, the chance to keep up with the latest and greatest. And the term senior? There’s a movement to stop using it, as it’s falling out of favor with folks who don’t view themselves as what the label implies: old.
Programs statewide that are often housed at local community centers or libraries are getting revamped to appeal to older adults who rely on smartphones, GPS and online banking and health services.
“What I really want to learn is to keep up with what is current today. How to use Zoom. How to do video. How to take music and transform it. Things like that,” said Stella Nash, 77, a retired registered dietician who served as the nutrition director for the regional USDA office. “I don’t want to be left behind.”
As part of national Older Adults Technology Services or OATS nonprofit, Senior Planet programs typically offer classes that are held at local community centers or libraries. But in Lowry, OATS opened it adjacent to the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum, with some funding provided by the Denver-based NextFifty Initiative.
In the few short weeks that Senior Planet has been open, classes have filled up thanks to word of mouth in the community. The facility looks more like a hipster coworking space, complete with a coffee bar, exposed brick and art on the walls created by artists in their 60s and up. It’s intended to attract folks interested in learning more about tech through free classes, as well as innovation and entrepreneurship. Membership is required, and that’s free, too, if you’re at least 60.
“Technology is what brings people and connects people to us,” said Khristine Rogers, Senior Planet Colorado’s state director. “But we’re really trying to create a hub of social connection, where people feel at home. And one of my favorite things day in and day out is you see people, especially a couple of weeks ago, who maybe came in by themselves to sign up for a class, and then they leave in a group, or they leave in a group and go have lunch at the beer garden.”
Older Americans spend a lot of money on technology — a projected $84 billion a year by 2030, according to the latest Tech Trends report by AARP. The organization also found that 91% of people age 50-plus use a computer; more than 80% between 50 to 64 have smartphones; and one in seven people over 50 own a digital home assistant like Amazon Alexa.
“We are seeing that there’s more exposure to technology, whether it’s in the workplace or because you’re a parent or because it’s just part of daily life,” said Alison Bryant, senior vice president of AARP research. “Once they see it’s useful, they’re likely to adopt it and they spend a lot of money on technology. And they are often heavy users. Once it’s in their homes because they see that it’s useful, they use it all the time.”
The S word
Organizations like Senior Planet are also trying to tear down stereotypes of older adults and technology, Rogers said.
“When you think of ageism, it’s one of the few socially acceptable -isms. If you were to say something like this group of people or this person based on whatever characteristic can’t, won’t or isn’t capable of doing X, in our case learning technology, that would be completely unacceptable. But we still seem OK to send the message that because someone is older they can’t,” Rogers said. “Part of our mission is to break down the wrong perceptions about aging.”
Changing the Narrative is tackling ageism locally. The campaign, which is funded by NextFifty and the Rose Community Foundation, wants to change how Coloradans talk about aging, starting with discouraging the use of the word “senior.”
“Those terms in and of themselves are not inclusive and carry a lot of negative stereotypes, including stereotypes that older people aren’t willing to learn technology, older people aren’t productive and so on,” said Janine Vanderburg, its director (who also thinks Senior Planet should ditch the S word). “The preferred terms are older adult, older person” and using a person’s actual age.
Colorado’s population is getting older and working longer so many older adults have spent the last few decades immersed in new technology advances at work and home.
According to the state demographer’s office, the number of adults age 65 or older grew 45.2% from 2010 to 2018, compared to overall population growth of 12.7%.
“In Colorado, we have the sixth lowest share of population over the age of 65, so we are a relatively young state,” said state demographer Elizabeth Garner, who prefers to use the term 65-plus. “However, we’ve got the third fastest (for) aging, meaning that percentage growth in the 65-plus is the third fastest in the U.S.”
More people age 65 and older are still working, she said. Nationwide, the number of 65-plus folks in the labor force reached 10.25 million in January, compared to 4 million in 2000. In Colorado, the number grew to 186,000 in December, from 43,000 in 2000.
“We do expect people to stay in the labor force longer because they want to and they’re living longer,” Garner said. “It’s really important. You make more money when you’re working than when you’re not working.”
Age, income and rural
Senior Planet, which started in New York and focuses on city locations, has offered classes in the Denver area for a few years. But it wants to serve the whole state. It picked Colorado to grow operations partly because of the demographic trends and support from other organizations in the state.
It has so far offered classes on the Front Range and in Fruita and is working on expanding to the northeastern and southeastern parts of the state, plus spread further on the Western Slope. Differences in tech familiarity is more stark when it comes to age and income and distance from urban areas.
“In the rural areas, the shifts of technology is supporting everything from health to other forms of engagement,” Rogers said. “We really wanted to make sure that we could provide access to quality training that would allow people in rural areas to feel connected and engaged as well.”
Senior Planet classes just wrapped at the Fruita Community Center, said Jacqui Foster, senior services supervisor.
“This (Senior Planet) course is either a five week, or a 10 week, at two days a week for an hour. And boy, it was more of a commitment (than past hour-long seminars), and for them to be able to practice on the computer and then come back with questions,” Foster said. “I think that’s more helpful.”
Elsewhere on the Western Slope, AARP offers programs like the Mentor Up program that teams National National Honor Society students from local high schools with older adults for technology help.
“Seniors bring their device (cell phone, laptop, tablet, e-reader) to the event and meet one on one with a student that then will work to answer their questions, assisting them with anything from how to load and use apps, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email, etc.,” Ja Neva Mar, who oversees the local AARP program, said in an email. “Every time I have assisted with this event there is at least one student that talks about how much fun it was, ‘It was like helping my grandparents!’”
The Gunnison City Council on Nov. 12 passed a resolution that effectively disbanded Boomers & Beyond, a volunteer organization that organized activities for older adults in the community.
It was exactly what Rogene McKiernan, 80, wanted. As a Boomers board member for several years, the retired recreation professor at Western Colorado University found it was getting difficult to find new volunteers.
“A lot of seniors now retiring are much more active than seniors used to be,” McKiernan said. “We have a lot of seniors maybe new or newly retired who want to travel, want to get out and do things. Part of it, they’re involved locally but a lot of them don’t want to volunteer their time and energy consistently.”
The City Council approved a plan to create an advisory committee that would help build out a program, complete with staffing, to take the burden off volunteers. Elizabeth Gillis, who stepped into a quarter-time role last year, will move to three-quarters time next year plus get a graduate student assistant, funded by a grant from NextFifty. She’s already created a website, set up a listserv and uses Mailchimp newsletters to communicate with the community about what’s going on.
“They never had tech anything until I arrived,” Gillis said. “We get a mix of the older seniors who don’t have as much tech experience, especially the ones that are from this area who did not move here from somewhere else. They have really, very low technology experience and training. But then we have a huge senior population including older seniors who moved here as a destination retirement home, who have lots of tech experience.”
She partners with the Gunnison County Library to use its computers and tech resources. But often, classes are in the evening and “you don’t want to drive on a winding mountain road in the dark,” she said.
Instead, her classes — always free — are held early afternoon.
“And I serve food at every one because that’s really important,” she said. “People just like to have food, it’s very social, you stand around the table and you snack. And then there’s some people that need it. They wouldn’t get homemade bread or anything like that unless I serve it.”
McKiernan herself is looking forward to just attending classes at the center instead of organizing them. Her wife retires next May and they’re thinking about hiking the Colorado Trail or biking the Pacific Crest Trail.
“It’s difficult to meet the needs of all the wide range of senior groups now. And they need to find a way to fund themselves because the state and federal funding is primarily for the care of seniors and not for programming, not for benefitting the social health of seniors, which is so critical,” said McKiernan, who recently got a Garmin smartwatch and would love some help getting it set up. “I think it’s a great economic benefit and a draw for communities out here that are smaller that a lot of seniors feel comfortable in. We spend a lot of money and bring a lot of money to towns that want to recognize how important seniors are.”