Web of Support: Undergraduate Students Mentoring Low-Income Senior Citizens in Online Networking

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A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2010

Howard University
Washington, D.C.


The rapid growth of the older adult population is directing society’s attention toward the implications of an aging imperative. In 2008, there were an estimated 39 million Americans over age 65. By 2030, this population is expected to grow to 72 million and will represent 20% of the nation’s total population. Over the next 50 years, America’s population age 85 and older is expected to grow faster than any other age group. The aging of the “baby boomer” generation (individuals born between 1946-1964) have changed the characteristics of the older adult population, presenting a group that is more racially diverse and better educated than previous generations. (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, 2010). Still, only limited attention has been paid to the technological needs of older adults in terms of Internet access, computer usage, hardware, and software (McMurtrey, 2009).

Brief Review of Literature

Older generations are making notable gains in Internet use (Fox, 2004) and their use of communication and entertainment activities online has increased significantly (Jones & Fox, 2009). Approximately 48% of older adults use the Internet (Zickur, 2010). The fastest growth in the use of social networks has been in the over age 74 group. Use of social networking sites has quadrupled since 2008, with an increase in use from 4-16%. Recent surveys show that older adults who use the Internet most frequently use e-mail, searches, and health information (Zickur, 2010). The Internet proves essential to the elderly in connecting with family, friends, and lost acquaintances, thus avoiding social isolation. It also provides valuable health related information and healthcare options (Seals, Clanton, Agarwal, Doswell, & Thomas, 2008). Research has shown that frequent Internet use by older adults stimulates cognition (Seelman, Collins, Bharucha, & Osborn, 2007). Other studies have shown that technology enriches daily functions, increases independence, and improves the overall life quality of older adults (Cresci & Jarosz, 2010; Stark-Wroblewski, Edelbaum, & Ryan, 2007).

Older adults, however, are often not comfortable with the swiftly advancing technology. Many view computers as intimidating and feel anxious about using them (Schlag, 2007). In addition, many fear they will break the machine and thus are reluctant to try using them (Chien, 2008). Furthermore, many residents in skilled nursing facilities have hearing, visual and motor skill impairments that make using the computer an immense challenge (Burgstahler, 2002). Thus, this aged population that has so much to gain from utilizing a computer for email, surfing the web, online shopping, and connecting to the world around them are often unwilling or unable to operate a computer (Mann, Belchior, Tomita, & Kemp, 2005).

Project Description

This project encompasses a partnership, which provides culturally diverse low-income senior citizens with refurbished wireless computers and individualized mentoring into online social networks. The core of this research project is a unique course entitled, Intergenerational Computing. This is an undergraduate service-learning course offered within the school of computer science for non-majors, in collaboration with nursing faculty. Students enrolled in the course provide technology instruction to older adults as part of their service-learning experience. The older adults receive individualized tutoring in a non-threatening learning environment while student-teachers assist them in overcoming their computer fears, learning a new set of communication skills, and being mentally stimulated. Other computing courses, including computer systems and hardware, as well as networking technologies include service-learning projects to build computer labs, networks, and distribute refurbished computer equipment to needy senior citizens. Moreover, some students choose to modify some existing computer mice and to develop models of Wii controllers more accessible to older adults. Other students have installed physical computer rooms that specifically benefit the elderly. Virtual communities via Second Life™ have also been designed by students to demonstrate to their peers how homes can be designed to accommodate wheelchair bound senior citizens.

Sensitivity Training

Students receive theory and training for teaching technology specifically to the elderly. Readings for the course include social gerontology, service-learning, and technology in action. In order to prepare students for their experiences with the seniors, they receive training and support in cross cultural and intergenerational communication. Students engage in an aging sensitivity program prior to interacting with the seniors. The goal of the program is to improve the students’ understanding of older adults and the many age related sensory, motor, and cognitive changes aged adults experience. Students engage in simulation exercises in order to build awareness. The simulation exercises include putting on eyeglasses to simulate glaucoma, retinal detachment, and macular degeneration that are common in older age. In addition, students place cotton in their ears to simulate age related hearing changes, and tape two fingers together in order to simulate arthritic changes. Students then attempt to engage in common activities such as dialing a cell phone and typing on a computer keyboard. These experiences prepare the students for structured technology educational activities with older adult learners.

Student Mentoring of Older Adults for Technology Use

Student mentors receive training and support as they work together to develop long-term relationships with clients under often challenging circumstances. To determine what it takes to get culturally diverse low income senior citizens fully integrated into online networking, each senior received a thorough functional assessment. Equipment was modified to meet individual needs, for example, wireless cards, screen size, keyboard style, and accessibility software. In a private online course forum, they debrief the project directors and reflect upon their experiences. Students confront pre-existing attitudes about the lifestyles and competencies of older adults while successfully sharing their technology skills. Students work with their matched senior citizen to present a summary of their collaboration. These creative “products” are shared with their online networks, community partners, and the University.

Methodology and Results

Data was collected on all student and older adult participants. A one-group pretest posttest design was utilized. The majority of students were business majors (59.4%), and did not have previous coursework related to older adults. Students were assessed on their involvement in the service-learning experiences, attitudes and advocacy toward the elderly, and commitment to social justice. The hypothesis was that students’ attitudes towards elders and their interest in advocating for older adults would improve after the gerontechnology project. The results showed that between the pretest and the posttest there was a statistically significance mean increase in both attitude scores and students’ interest in advocating for older adults.

Senior citizen participants were assessed on their uptake and use of Internet technology. Tools measured perceived quality of life, functional, and cognitive status, and attitudes toward computer technology. Crude data, such as the number of participants in the seniors’ network and the amount of network activity, were also analyzed. Qualitative data was gathered from older adults’ feedback throughout the project.

Participants were community dwelling, with a mean age of 78. There was a statistically significant improvement in cognitive function following the technology intervention (p<.001). Anecdotal data demonstrated that older adults were able to overcome their fear of computers. Preliminary data showed improved functional status.


The integration of service-learning and gerontechnology has powerful implications for all participants. This project has provided students with a high level of satisfaction. Similarly, older adults reported satisfaction in learning a new mode of communication and looked forward to improving this essential life skill in order not to be “left behind”. Generally, student partakers have a changed perspective on older adults and their career aspects in terms of serving particular attention to the aged. Older adults are empowered to obtain life energizing information, as well as improved communication with family and friends around the globe. Community agencies are able to partner with educational institutions to provide a meaningful service at almost no cost.

Future Research

Future research will include the use of touchscreen computers and simpler computer interfaces for older adults. As technology advances and prices decrease, the digital divide with the aged user population will inevitably shrink. Large touchscreen computers may become common and affordable with easy-to-use applications. Furthermore, it is anticipated that built-in applications will allow the infusion of simple telehealth devices for home computers. Improved cognitive functioning will continue to be the chief goal to help sustain independent living with a high quality of life.


Burgstahler, S. (2002). Working together: People with disabilities and computer technology. Seattle, WA: University of Washington, DO-IT.

Chien, T. (2008). Factors influencing computer anxiety and its impact on E-learning effectiveness : A review of literature. Proceedings of AHRD 2008 International Research Conference.

Cresci, M. K., & Jarosz, P. A. (2010). Bridging the digital divide for urban seniors : Community partnership. Geriatric Nursing, 31 (6), 455-463.

Cresci, M. K., & Jarosz, P. A. (2010). Bridging the Digital Divide for Urban Seniors: Community Partnership. Geriatric Nursing, 31(6), 455-463.

Mann, W. C., Belchior, P., Tomita, M. R., & Kemp, B. J. (2005). Computer use by middle-aged and older adults with disabilities. Technology & Disability, 17(1), 1-9.

McMurtrey, M. E., Ronald E. McGaughney, James P. Downey. (2009). Seniors and information technology: A potential goldmine of opportunity? , 1(3), 300-316.

Schlag, P. A. (2007). Older adults’ experiences with computer technology. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Georgia, Athens, GA.

Seals, C. D., Clanton, K., Agarwal, R., Doswell, F., & Thomas, C. M. (2008). Lifelong Learning: Becoming Computer Savvy at a Later Age. Educational Gerontology, 34(12), 1055 – 1069.

Seelman, K., Collins, D. M., Bharucha, A. J., & Osborn, J. (2007). Giving meaning through quality of life through technology. Nursing Homes: Long Term Care Management, 56, 40-42.

Stark-Wroblewski, K., Edelbaum, J. K., & Ryan, J. J. (2007). Senior Citizens Who Use E-mail. Educational Gerontology, 33(4), 293-307.

Zickur, K. (2010). Generations 2010. Retrieved January 12, 2011, from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Generations-2010.aspx

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Spring 2011: Engaging Students in the Community and the World