Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen joins a Shabbat service in New York with the help of Zoom.

Skype calls with grandchildren and emails might have made up the bulk of seniors’ dealings with technology until the coronavirus pandemic upended their daily lives and interactions. Fast-forward three months and some octogenarians can be found hopping on a Zoom call to attend Shabbat services or hosting a happy hour with friends. Others are finding technology’s many offerings overwhelming and even frightening. 

‘It’s all teachable’

 “Before, I did a lot of emailing and a small amount of texting, and that was about it,” said Michael Cohen, 77. No longer in practice as a pediatrician, Cohen still teaches some classes at a medical school in Tucson to which he drives from his home in Chandler. After the imposition of stay-at-home orders in March, he immediately switched to teaching on Zoom, a program new to him. His university set him up on the platform, so he only needed to figure out how to open it on his laptop to teach. The only real difficulty was getting his slides uploaded.

Once Cohen got used to his class, he wanted to do more. A self-described “active senior learner,” he wanted to use this new technology to try out classes and services he wouldn’t have considered before. He might not be adept, he said, but he’s tried to learn as much as he can to do the things he enjoys. 

“It’s all pretty seamless now,” he said. “I like Shabbat services, and I found a congregation in New York and Los Angeles — it’s been a boon for me.”

Cohen said he is excited about the opportunities virtual programming has opened to him, especially as it concerns Jewish education, a primary interest of his. 

“I’m particularly interested in Israel, and I’ve probably watched some kind of internet thing at least five days a week — sometimes I schedule too many,” he joked. He offered a recent Temple Chai class as proof of seniors’ enjoyment of the new technology offerings. “Attendance was far in excess of what they would have had if they had been in person.” 

These classes and services will be an enhancement, he said. 

“It might lack personal intimacy, but it suffices, and it’s all teachable.”

Persistence is key

Not all seniors are as optimistic about grasping the ins and outs of technology — assuming they even have access to it. 

“The first handicap,” said Rabbi Levi Levertov, executive director of Smile on Seniors, “is if they don’t have any technology.” 

Even when they have a personal computer or a smartphone, there’s a big learning curve. 

“Even people who have it don’t know how to use it,” he said.

Levertov’s program offers tech support, giving him experience teaching Zoom and other platforms. A big problem is that people get frustrated and simply give up. Persistence is key. Some take notes when he teaches them new things which helps considerably. 

One difficulty is downloading; another is switching between programs. He said he often sees people have inadvertently switched to something else in their browser, and they don’t know how to get back to the Zoom call even though he can see they’re still active. He is getting used to troubleshooting a variety of issues. 

But he’s witnessed many successes as well. He recently enjoyed hearing from a senior that she was now setting up her own Zoom happy hours with her friends. He remembered when he had to walk her through joining a call a few weeks earlier. And every day he offers seniors programming on Zoom. 

“There are people at home, and you clearly see they are not going out, and they’re craving for that social connection,” he said. “They’re drinking this in once they get it — it’s something that’s needed right now.”

Fear of doing something wrong

“There’s a lot of fear — you can touch a button and something disappears,” said Janet Rees, 72, and senior concierge and coordinator for Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s Creative Aging program. Rees comes out of the business world and thought she had a handle on computers and using technology. But when she found herself inadvertently deleting her email contacts, she had a moment of panic — something she has in common with the cohort of seniors she works with.

“I feel it on my shoulders every day — the fear I’m going to click on the wrong thing, and the world is going to blow up,” she said. That idea is “all-pervasive.” Nevertheless, she pressed ahead and learned Zoom in order to continue with Creative Aging classes as well as virtual cafes that took the place of in-person meetings for people who are experiencing dementia along with their partners. 

The people Rees works with range from 65 to 93, and, for the most part, they’re now all on Zoom. She marveled that one morning a 93-year-old had figured out how to put a new background on her Zoom calls by herself. Witnessing so many people making strides with technology, when others told her it seemed unrealistic to host a program for Holocaust survivors on Zoom, she now is more optimistic about the program and intends to move forward with it. 

“We’ll see. We have help,” she said.

‘A cell phone is just a funny-looking phone’

In extreme situations — like those facing seniors who are very ill or in hospice care — technology can be a source of frustration. 

“It’s overwhelming for them,” said Monica McCullough, Madrona Hospice & Palliative Care’s nursing director, because, she said, they don’t understand the technology or the terminology.

In McCullough’s view, it’s counterproductive and simply too aggravating to try to use FaceTime or Zoom for someone with dementia. When a caregiver holds up a smartphone hoping to connect a patient with dementia to a loved one, the response is some version of: “Why are you in a box? You should be here.”

McCullough recalled taking a video of her elderly mother to share with her children several years ago. Her mother only saw a phone and nothing else. She was frustrated her daughter wouldn’t give it to her to speak directly to her grandchildren. McCullough said with her patients now attempting to talk with doctors, family and friends on these devices, she is reminded often of that clarifying moment with her mother. In place of physical closeness, they’re left with unsatisfying smartphones. 

“It’s heart-wrenching. I wish we had more answers.”

Silver linings 

Frustrations abound, but many seniors have found that there’s a lot to like about platforms like Zoom once they get comfortable. The ability to do things from the comfort of home is a huge relief to many seniors who don’t have access to transportation or are fearful of driving in the dark or by themselves. 

Levertov said he intends to keep a lot of virtual programs going given how many people weren’t able to attend things before. 

“This has opened up something we never considered or thought of,” he said. 

Rees said that for caregivers of people with dementia, technology offers new freedoms. 

“When you have a person living with dementia, you don’t know what your day is going to be like, and by being able to walk into a room and turn on a computer instead of try to get someone ready to go somewhere — it’s heaven,” she said.

Cohen hopes that institutions consider keeping this modality of streaming and Zooming post-coronavirus. 

“It is far more compatible for the lifestyle of seniors than driving someplace — especially at night,” he said. “You lose something in the translation from in-person meetings, but there’s ways around that.” 

And he won’t miss a minute of those three-hour drives to Tucson. JN