Engage Magazine Fall 2021

Using Technology to Combat Ageism…Even in Your Pajamas

By Ryan Kawamoto, Regional Director for Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP

In a recent evaluation when asked, “what did you like the most about today’s session?” one of our participants stated, “I was at home, in my pajamas, learning new things.”

As Regional Director for Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) for AARP, I feel privileged to be on the front lines waging a war against ageism – on a mission to create a more inclusive and equitable society. Whether a quick self-deprecating quip about having a “senior moment” when losing one’s keys or a policy decision that overlooks the needs of older adults, ageism results in individuals feeling disempowered, undervalued, and ignored.

Ageism is especially consequential in terms of technology usage. An October 2020 study in The Gerontologist found that older adults who frequently experienced perceived ageism were less likely to use the Internet. What’s more, a 2016 research report in the Journal of Gerontology & Geriatric Medicine concluded that when older adults internalized society’s negative perceptions of their ability to use Internet technology, they were more likely to doubt their own capacity to understand the Internet and reduce their demand for Internet service.

As a nonprofit powered by aging optimists, OATS is working to combat two issues that go hand-in-hand: ageism and the digital divide that exists for older adults. We reject commonly held stereotypes that older adults cannot or do not want to learn technology. We’ve found firsthand that empowering our participants with the skills needed to excel in the digital age combats ageism and creates lasting positive change in their lives.

After a series of successful collaborations, OATS formally joined the AARP family as a charitable affiliate in 2021. This affiliation allows OATS to pursue its mission at scale, helping seniors harness the power of technology no matter their socioeconomic circumstances, geography, educational background, or age. 

In 2013, Thomas Kamber, founder and executive director of OATS, launched the Senior Planet Exploration Center in Manhattan, the first technology-themed community center for older adults in the United States. Today, Senior Planet programming continues to be designed to combat ageism and focused on the many ways older adults can use technology and the Internet to connect with others and improve their lives.

Here’s the best part: I truly believe our work is making an impact, which I see in both in small everyday observations and larger metric-based evidence. When we first opened Senior Planet at Avenidas in Palo Alto, I fondly recall the pure joy of one participant when she learned she could communicate sarcasm over text messages with the “eye roll” emoji, or when a full class of older adult participants learned how to take selfies – with varying degrees of off-centered foreheads. Thanks to their new digital skills, participants have started their own businesses, made new friends and reconnected with old ones, and found new ways to talk to their loved ones. 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we transitioned all offerings online, allowing older adults across the country to access our free programming. Since then, seniors have joined us online more than 300,000 times. “All the Senior Planet classes are so rewarding, a godsend in this pandemic world. I would not have near the opportunities for personal connection without Senior Planet Zoom classes. They’re wonderful and much appreciated!” said one participant.

In our mission to be more inclusive, we have shifted programming to include more non-English, monolingual participants, who studies have shown are even further overlooked and under-resourced, and updated our website to be more user-friendly and accessible to individuals with visual impairments – recently garnering our website a Webby Award. 

Additionally, we are now seeing evidence suggesting that older adults are breaking down digital barriers. A study conducted by Pew Research earlier this year found that 75 percent of older adults are now using the Internet, a substantial jump from 66 percent in 2018, but still a noticeably lower usage rate than younger demographics.

Given this data, we released a new report earlier this year in partnership with The Humana Foundation which quantifies that 22 million older adults continue to lack broadband access at home. In response to these findings, we launched Aging Connected, a nationwide program aiming to bring one million older adults online by 2022 and help close the technology adoption gap. 

So, while ageism still proves to be a formidable foe, I would never have expected that redefining aging with attitude would be so empowering, fun, and fulfilling. After taking one of our courses, one participant stated, “I recently had a tech-related problem, and rather than going to the Apple Store to get help like I normally would, I tinkered with my iPad on my own and fixed it! I am so proud of this. I feel that in addition to getting exposed to new things in the class, it has also helped me be more confident in my interactions with technology products.”

If you are interested in combatting ageism through technology, I ask that you please consider asking your local community center to explore partnering with us through our new Senior Planet licensing program by visiting www.oats.org/licensing or consider attending our free programming by visiting www.seniorplanet.org. I hope that you find combatting ageism has never been so fun or easier to do – even while wearing pajamas.