Tech Tutor program offers seniors a lifeline during pandemic

close up of senior couple with tablet pc at home

By Joan Denison

Last March, as the pandemic caused everyone to shelter in place and go online to stay connected, senior adults, many who live by themselves, became even more isolated. Though Zoom, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger video and other apps enabled people to work and stay in touch, a great number of older adults often lacked the tech expertise to use them. Their smartphone was a powerful computer they had not fully made use of; the tablet their kids had gifted them was fun to play Solitaire on and look at email, but they didn’t know how much more they could do with it.

Covenant Place, with the Mirowitz Center, reinvented a Tech Tutor program they started in 2014 as a way to bring young people together with older adults, reversing roles as the youngsters became the tutors and the seniors became the learners. This “in-person” program had to be reimagined to one that would enable tutors to provide instruction over the telephone, until the senior learner was able to access online networking apps. 

Jake Sher, an Arizona State University business major and son of Federation’s Community Engagement VP, Karen Sher, took the challenge to help manage the new initiative for Covenant Place and quickly recruited other college and high school friends who were also locked down and eager to help. Tutors and learners were paired if they owned the same type of technology: Apple products, Android products, PC’s. Having the same type of device made it easy for the tutor and learner to talk over the phone about which button to push, where it might be located, and how to use an app. This one-to-one tutoring worked well, and the COVID-safe tutoring program was off to a great start. 

Senior learner Helene Mirowitz shared, “I think it’s a fabulous program, and my Tech Tutor, Diane, is a great teacher. I’ve learned so much, more than I ever knew how to do on the computer before. I played bridge online yesterday for the first time, and it was wonderful!”

With a generous grant from the Women’s Auxiliary Foundation for Jewish Aged, a supporting foundation of Jewish Federation of St. Louis, the program was expanded through a collaboration of the Mirowitz Center, Central Reform Congregation, Congregation B’nai Amoona, Congregation Shaare Emeth, Congregation Temple Israel, Nusach Hari B’nai Zion Congregation, Temple Emanuel, Traditional Congregation, United Hebrew Congregation and Young Israel of St. Louis. The collaboration provided opportunity to increase the recruitment of tutors and learners, with the goal of helping those isolated at home, meet other congregants, and access the many wonderful online programs offered across our community. Seniors are easily grasping new tech skills and are benefitting from being able to access virtual medical appointments, online banking and staying in touch with friends and family. 

Susan Bosse, the Mirowitz Center’s Tech Tutor program liaison, understands the need for the program. She notes, “As a senior myself, who is very careful and pretty much staying at home during the pandemic, I appreciate the importance of using technology which has kept me, at least marginally, sane during this time and enables me to stay in touch with others, including celebrations with my children, grandchildren and extended family. I enjoy many online classes, programs and entertainment from all over the world. I even Zoom happy hour with two local friends several times each week. I love that I am helping to open all of these doors and more to our program participants.”

Grant funds from the Women’s Auxiliary Foundation also support the “Tech Tutor Guide,” inserted in this week’s Jewish Light. The custom guide, designed by Covenant Place COO, Jen Schmitz, provides step-by-step instructions for those just learning to use technology and may enhance an active user’s knowledge about accessibility features and ways to increase the ease of use of their device. The guide provides instructions for Apple and Android devices and PC’s with photos to make it easy to follow the step-by-step instructions. “I hope that people find the printed Tech Tutor Guide, that can be referenced over and over, makes it easier to learn and gain confidence using technology,” stated Schmitz.  

Susan Kemppainen, Mirowitz Center volunteer and part of its community engagement staff, registers and helps the many seniors attending daily Mirowitz Center online programs. She explains, “While all our programs are also available on the telephone, it makes a big difference to people when they can see each other, chat before and after a program, and fully engage with the speaker or with other special interest group participants. Sometimes, the adult learner just needs a little help to turn on their video on Zoom or learn how to unmute their microphone. Others are basically starting from square one and the personalized Tech Tutor program enables the tutor to help the learner do exactly what they want to do.” 

Jerry Bamberger, a senior who helped test the Tech Tutor Guide’s instructions as the booklet was being developed, was enthusiastic in his praise for the material. 

“The document is outstanding, and everyone who uses a smart phone should read and study it in order to increase their knowledge and use of their iPhone or Android,” he said. “I definitely will.” 

Seniors who would like the help of a Tech Tutor, those who would like to volunteer to tutor, or to order additional Tech Tutor Guides for a suggested $5 donation, call 314-432-1610 ext. 1112 or email [email protected].