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How Village Network serves the digital needs of seniors

In the pre-Google internet world of the 1990s, when silver-and-blue AOL CD-ROM discs were flooding mailboxes, Ardith Allen was in nursing school. After graduation, she was busy healing people, did not work behind a computer monitor, and online connections were not a top priority.

Now retired and living in the Strawberry Hill community, Ms. Allen relies on technology daily to keep current on news, stay educated, and maintain relationships with family, friends, book club members, and other people in the community. She’s lived in Strawberry Hill for five years, and in Charlotte for 20.

“Technology is a mystery to me, and I am trying very hard to keep up with things as they progress,” she said recently. “I rely on my laptop because I have become a self-appointed scribe for my book club, so I have periodic lists to update. I’m a social butterfly so I have a lot of friends to keep up with. A lot of them are in town, but some of them are across the United States.”

Ms. Allen wonders why technology companies change features and then don’t tell users about the changes, and don’t distribute documentation. When a function goes away without explanation or notice, she is forced to take the offending device to a technology expert and get it fixed. Sometimes, as with a mouse that found a new version of Windows 10 incompatible, it never gets fixed.

She wishes that she could get to know her far-away grandnieces and grandnephews better on Facebook, but because she prioritizes her time on in-person communities, she finds less energy for online social media. She joined the family mobile plan of her son and daughter-in-law, but learned that her own desire to use texting is not always shared by friends.

Still an observant caregiver, she notices that young people frequently text with their thumbs. One friend texts with her pinkie. Because Ms. Allen was a secretary before she was a nurse, she likes physical keyboards, but they’re no longer in fashion.

Ms. Allen is a member of the Charlotte Village Network, a national organization that arrived locally about four years ago. The Village Network is a non-profit organization that helps senior citizens age in place — and digital tools are a key component for providing access. Support services include transportation to appointments, shopping, dog walking, affordable home repairs, and social and wellness programs.

“AARP surveys say that 87 percent of us want to stay in our own homes as we age, but there are some challenges, so our organization is here to help overcome those challenges,” said Jim Kimbler, president of the Charlotte network.

“One of our key services is always helping our members maintain their digital connections,” Kimbler said. “We have a volunteer who will help them with their devices, because we want them to always be able to be in touch.

“But our lives are changing around us, so now if you go to the doctor’s office, you’re given an opportunity to log in to their medical portal on the internet to get your test results from this morning,” he said. “If you’re not comfortable with the internet you might be afraid to even try that. But once you’ve tried it, you find that you can have access to medical information even more quickly.”

Kimbler is also impressed with digital education programs offered by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, and by the Shepherd’s Center, both of which schedule classes in file management, spreadsheets, social media, social marketing, communication programs such as Skype, and other new applications.

“Probably the single most important issue related to digital inclusion for seniors is orientation,” Kimbler said. “There are many, many opportunities in Charlotte but most seniors don’t know where they are. They haven’t had the need to find them and once they do find them, they understand what a leap that they can take in terms of improving their quality of life. Many seniors have recently moved here for retirement or following millennial children, so they’re not as familiar with our city as they are with the city that they came from. So we’re here to help them find those things and facilitate getting access to the things that they need on a daily basis.”

Three digital education resources for Charlotte seniors

Shepherd’s Center of Charlotte

Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

Digital Charlotte

Photo of Ardith Allen by Nathan Williams.