Student finds niche working with seniors on computers

Ben Shanken, a junior at Washington University, studies economics, business and computer science. He also studies how to grow his six-year-old company. “I started Eldertech Solutions when I was in high school in Phoenix,” says Shanken, 20. “My parents went to some of my first appointments with me because I didn’t have a driver’s license.”

Eldertech Solutions promotes computer literacy in the senior population, pairing interested seniors one-on-one with patient, knowledgeable instructors. Shanken’s five employees – who all do their own driving – also are university students. The company provides all kinds of services including windows/Mac support and lessons, software technical support, virus and spyware removal, network setup and repair and hardware installation and replacement.

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Shanken started his business here about eight months ago. He guarantees “dependable and timely service.” Fees are $40 for the first hour and $20 for every 30 minutes after that. Packages also are available. (For details, see He notes that the business is “60 percent teaching and 40 percent fixing.”

When Shanken and his staff are teaching, they like to use common analogies. “We say your desktop computer is like your house. There are different rooms in the house. And the icons are like your stuff. Then we show clients how to ‘drive’ into the world of the Internet, and get from place to another.”

The inspiration for Shanken’s business – and his first client-was his grandfather. When Shanken was 13, his family gave his grandfather an old computer. His grandfather was interested in learning, but didn’t know how to begin. Shanken stepped in.

“It was a hobby for him,” says Shanken. “I hadn’t considered that before, that people would use a computer to pass the time, stimulate their minds-but that’s true for lot of people. And for many seniors, the computer is an important means of communication.”

Shanken got his first computer when he was 5. “I was brought up on computers,” he says. Early on, he started taking computers apart, learning how they worked. “I broke a lot of computers back then,” he says, laughing. “I did a lot of tinkering and messing around. That’s common among the people who work for me, too.”

To date, Eldertech Solutions boasts between 300 and 400 customers, ranging in age from 70 to 96. Some of those customers live at the Gatesworth, #1 McKnight Place in Ladue. “It’s crazy when you think about it,” says Shanken. “The Gatesworth is very progressive, upscale – and the people there are taking time to try something new.”

Harris Frank helped Shanken get started working with residents at the Gatesworth. “We met about 18 months ago at a family dinner party. “It was clear right away that Ben was many cuts above the average student,” says Frank, 84.

“I knew there were people at the Gatesworth having trouble with computers, and the second or third time we had Ben over for dinner, I told him about them. I didn’t know that he’d had a computer company in high school.”

Shanken connected with the Gatesworth, hired assistants and set up group and individual sessions. “Ben has lots of customers elsewhere, too. Stories abound all over the place about Ben and his company, and I have yet to hear anybody who doesn’t feel they’ve gotten double their money’s worth.”

Frank notes that the biggest thing Eldertech Solutions does right is work with seniors at their own pace. “We don’t comprehend as quickly, no matter what level of expertise we have with computers. When I started out, I didn’t know much aside from email, but now, because of Ben and his workers, I teach myself one new thing each day. Eldertech instills confidence in you, and I am no longer afraid of the computer.”

Mel Dunkelman, 89, credits Michael Hopper at Eldertech with helping him write his autobiography. Dunkelman’s grandchildren bought him a computer about 18 months ago. Before he got the computer, Dunkelman signed up for a class in computer use at the library. “I learned the basics, and I practiced at home on my wife’s computer. Well – I played a lot of solitaire.”

Once he owned his own computer, Dunkelman expanded his range. Joy, his wife, had encouraged him to put together an autobiography. Dunkelman, who lives in Clayton, started with his memories of serving in World War II. A two-fingered typist, Dunkelman learned from Eldertech Solutions about voice-recognition software that allows a writer to dictate stories, rather than type them.

“Michael taught me how to use the software, how to scan photos and how to back everything up on a flash drive,” says Dunkelman. “Now I’m writing about my family. It’s fun.”

Joy Dunkelman has used a computer for almost 20 years, but she also praises Eldertech. “When my granddaughter was 9 – she’s 27 now – she told me that I was cool because I was the first grandma she knew who was on the Internet,” she says, laughing. “Still, Michael has helped me think through things that come up. We think what Ben is doing with Eldertech is terrific.”

Shanken tells tales of customers growing from complete computer illiteracy to understanding fully how computers work. Many satisfied customers now use email, search the Internet and play hearts. Some are on Facebook. One former client writes, designs and prints her own greeting cards. And a lot of Eldertech clients have learned to track their family histories using genealogy web sites.

“The Eldertech formula is to send out young people who are willing to listen, who are good with people, to work with seniors,” says Shanken. “I have to say what I am doing makes me happy.”