Eager-to-learn seniors with technology questions and device mishaps fill the Tyvola Senior Center on Friday mornings. With the help of a couple of senior volunteers, a county park program called “Computer Help with the Guys” is making Charlotte an easier place by providing digital literacy to anyone who needs it.
As the masterminds behind the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation project, Bill Chaney and Bob Devries form a duo that defies expectations. Many people wouldn’t expect senior citizens to run weekly technology workshops. But Chaney and Devries show how an 85-year-old retiree is just as connected as a 25-year-old hipster.
“The world would be a better place if people could just look beyond wrinkles and walkers and wheelchairs… and recognize older adults as the teachers, entrepreneurs, and dancers they once were,” wrote Laura Hahn, an instructor at the Scripps Gerontology Center. But, she wrote in a 2013 essay for AARP, “there’s freedom in being the person we are in the present, and not having to answer as the person we once were.”
In a recent interview, Chaney said the people who come in for support at the tech lab on Tyvola Road are doing remarkable work. He and Devries are impressed and humbled by their stories.
“A lady was just here working on a manuscript of her life history so she could leave it for her grandchildren,” Chaney said. “Now, what better thing would you want to use a computer for?”
Tari Cottman, who manages the Tyvola Senior Center, explains that the program got started because seniors are so engaged with technology that there is strong demand for help desk troubleshooting. The center’s staff initially answered help-desk-type questions, which transitioned into Chaney working on a dedicated program. Demand grew, and Devries joined this year. The center also collaborates on digital literacy classes with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. At the moment, Cottman said, the center is focused on the laborious process of updating the lab’s county-owned personal computers, which are obsolete.
“It’s great that we have seniors to teach the class because the learning is taking place among peers,” Cottman said. “They cover anything having to do with technology — personal computers, laptops, smartphones — and they learn from each other.”
Research indicates a high level of entrepreneurship and technology proficiency among senior citizens. People in their 50s and 60s start businesses at about twice the rate as people in their 20s, according to a 2014 study for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
Chaney said volunteering strengthens his own digital skills.
“I’ve improved my skills and my knowledge of computers just by helping people solve their problems. It’s a two-way street,” he said.
“We find almost anything these days on Google. Pretty soon we’ll be able to do brain surgery via the internet.” — Bob Devries
New technology consultant Bob Devries said he tries to teach people how to solve problems rather than just providing answers. “If you give a man a fish, he has food for a while,” Devries said. “If you teach him how to fish, he has food for a long time. On the computer, if you know how to get around your computer, you can solve your own problems.”
The results of a 2000 Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 36 percent of respondents aged 50-65 and 12 percent of those 65+ had used the internet. Twelve years later, those numbers had increased to 85 percent using the internet for people aged 50-65, and 58 percent for people 65+.
“When I was 10, 11 years old, I would read science fiction,” Chaney said. “That prompted my thought process through the years. With computers, it’s not ‘I’m afraid of this thing,’ it’s ‘what can I do to make my life and anybody else’s life a little easier?’”
“Computer Help with the Guys” is available between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Fridays at the Tyvola Senior Center, 2225 Tyvola Road. Senior centers are also available on Shamrock Drive and on Gilead Road in Huntersville.
Photo above: Bob Devries of “Computer Help with the Guys.”