Empowering elders through tech

Senior Planet members attend an event about social media privacy. Photo: Ashad Hajela
Senior Planet in Chelsea assists those over 60 with digital skills to improve their lives
by ashad hajela

The sunlight flashes through a large window into the high-ceilinged center in Chelsea. Computers sit in a corner opposite the reception area of a well-lit room. This is the headquarters of Senior Planet, a project under the non-profit Older Adults Technology Services, affectionately referred to as OATS.

Senior Planet opened five years ago and is trying to empower people over the age of 60 with technology skills to achieve a goal or better their lives. Senior Planet is a flagship program of OATS, which has been operating since 2004. Membership is free.

“We try to create an environment in here where it doesn’t feel difficult to interact with the technology. It is supposed to feel very open and free and communal,” said Alex Glazebrook, the OATS Director of Technology. “People who come here really are driven to use technology to change something in their lives.”

Senior Planet’s programs include computer basics from using a mouse to browsing the Internet. One program, Team Senior Planet, is more advanced and focuses on health and wellness — teaching members how to use fitbits, for example. These members are taken to gyms around the boroughs where trainers coach them.

Such activities are part of Senior Planet’s five content areas: financial security, advocacy, social engagement, creativity and health and wellness. Content about senior dating also appears on the Senior Planet website.

In light of the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal, however, Senior Planet’s job has recently become more difficult. Members were skeptical of technology to begin with, and the scandal only makes the situation worse. Facebook is sending over guest speakers to talk about privacy on social media. Senior Planet has links with many large tech companies including Facebook, Google and Dropbox to provide extra programming for seniors.

“We’re lucky because we’re kind of cool,” said Glazebrook. “Companies want to work with us.”

One of Senior Planet’s most interesting programs is called Startup, which focuses on providing members with digital skills to lay the foundations for a business. Senior Planet only focuses on the basics like social media, making websites and connecting PayPal to these websites. “We don’t do coding,” said Glazebrook.

Carol Ballantyne, a member of Senior Planet originally from Trinidad, joined to explore the possibilities for online business and has also been part of the Startup program. “I believe we seniors have a lot to give back,” she said, citing the organization as a platform that helps her do so.

Senior Planet has had its success stories. Cindy Riley, a longtime member and a Jamaican immigrant, said, “I don’t have a fear of technology anymore.” Glazebrook also reflected on “an older adult ... here who was facing eviction” about two years ago.

The person he mentioned did not have enough income to keep living in her home. She used to be a journalist, so Senior Planet recommended that she use ELance, a site where writers go to make pitches. If the people on the site like the pitch, writers win bids for contracts. This woman’s prominence on ELance made her enough money to keep paying her rent.

“This is what technology can do to empower some,” said Glazebrook. “It’s what we’re all about.”