Teaching tech

Teens know how to text and use smartphones. And they’re sharing that knowledge with seniors.

Story by Julie Saetre

Three years ago, at a senior center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a group of older adults had just completed an introductory mentoring session with Teeniors, a business that hires tech-savvy teens and 20-somethings to mentor senior citizens on the basics of smartphones, laptops and other modern devices.

Trisha Lopez, who founded Teeniors in 2015 after winning first place at New Mexico’s Startup Weekend Women’s Edition, moved through the room, surveying the adults about their experience. When she approached one woman and asked for her feedback, Lopez was taken aback by the response.

Grandson listening to music on a phone with his grandfather

“She just started bawling,” Lopez recalls. “She said, ‘I can’t tell you what this has been like. For someone like me, who has no young people in her life, no family to speak of, you all have given me hope. Someone will help us and not yell at us. You welcomed me the moment I walked in. You didn’t make me feel stupid or condescended to. I hope you realize the impact of what you’re doing here for people like me.’”

Male trendy student holding laptop

While tears aren’t typical at a Teeniors session, similar grateful reactions are commonplace. Teeniors and groups like it not only bring the benefits of technology to older citizens, but they build bridges between two generations.

“In our society, we tend to isolate people as they age,” Lopez says. “We’re like, ‘Why don’t you stand over there to the side?’ We prioritize youth and beauty, so they’re even more isolated.”

Isolation’s impact on older adults can’t be underestimated. The AARP Foundation reports that more than 8 million American adults age 50 and older are affected by isolation, while the Campaign to End Loneliness reports that 1.2 million older people in the United Kingdom are chronically lonely. Both the AARP Foundation and the Campaign to End Loneliness add that social isolation carries the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And a 2013 study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences linked social isolation in older men and women with a higher mortality rate. 

When young people teach tech to older adults, they lessen isolation risks in several ways. The tech knowledge itself allows seniors to use smartphones, laptops and tablets to more easily keep in touch with children and grandchildren, as well as other relatives and friends. Even learning how to text opens new channels of communication.

“What seniors fail to realize is that texting has replaced letter writing and the telephone,” says Brenda Rusnak Cassaday, president of Best Part Productions and executive producer of “Cyber-Seniors,” an award-winning documentary that evolved into an international program pairing volunteer teen tech mentors with older people. “If you want to continue to have a relationship with your grandkids who live out of town, and even those who live in town, this is a great way to do it.”

“We guarantee you that you will connect more often with your daughter or son or grandkids if you learn to text as opposed to hoping they’ll call you every Sunday.”

One question Lopez and her Teeniors pose to their mentees is: “Who in this room knows how to text?” For the seniors who don’t, Lopez makes an appealing promise.

“We guarantee you that you will connect more often with your daughter or son or grandkids if you learn to text as opposed to hoping they’ll call you every Sunday.”

With the basics of texting behind them, seniors can progress to other forms of communication, including taking, sending and receiving photographs and Skyping with family. Teen mentors also help them learn to understand and download apps, which introduce an even wider world. GPS-based apps enable seniors to find their way to a friend’s house, a theater performance or a group gathering. Music services allow them to listen to favorite tunes of the past or find new artists to enjoy. Mentors guide them through creating a playlist of 1950s pop hits, streaming a Beatles channel or downloading a favorite album.

Elderly man showing a tablet

YouTube, with its wide range of entertaining and informative videos, offers seniors new ways to experience old favorites. A senior who loves baking has access to seemingly endless recipes and tutorials, while a theater-loving person no longer must wait for a favorite performance to come to town. Cassaday recalls one senior telling her mentor about the first opera she ever attended. The mentor helped her find a video of the opera online.

“The look on her face as she was watching it and listening to it, it was just like she had been transformed to 50 years earlier,” Cassaday says.

Another Cyber-Seniors client had her own moment of rediscovery through Google Earth, which allowed her to visit her hometown virtually.

“She couldn’t believe that she was able to see the house that she was born in and her old community,” Cassaday says. “She said that back in her day, there were no cars, and suddenly her old street was lined with vehicles. That was a huge aha moment for her.”

Such “aha moments” were behind the 2014 “Cyber-Seniors” documentary, directed by Saffron Cassaday, one of Brenda’s daughters, and conceived by Saffron’s sisters Macaulee and Kascha Cassaday. After their grandparents learned to use email, Facebook and Skype, the young women began hearing from them several times a week. If technology transformed their own family’s communications, why not give that opportunity to other seniors?

Today, Cyber-Seniors has organized more than 300 community events, usually involving a screening of the documentary followed by a teen-taught tech lab. The organization also provides extensive online resources that help any interested group or club launch and maintain such a program. Seniors wanting tech assistance join for free; young people pay US$25 per year. For $250 annually, a group or club receives 30 mentor log-in spots. Students and advisors can track service hours and access more than 1,200 tutorials.

“What seniors fail to realize is that texting has replaced letter writing and the telephone.”

“The model works because it’s cost-effective,” Brenda Rusnak Cassaday says. “You’ve got all this untapped talent of the young kids that know technology and that need community-service hours, that need experience for their résumé. It’s low-cost, sustainable and effective.”

Teenior’s Lopez launched her business after watching her mother struggle to use technology. In her model, seniors pay for private mentoring: $49.95 for an hour at the Teeniors office or $59.95 for an in-home session. A senior center or residential facility can choose to hire mentors for onsite training as well. As independent contractors, mentors receive payment for hours worked. 

“Our goal,” Lopez says, “is to empower older adults, to connect them with their loved ones, engage with their communities, while providing meaningful paid jobs to young adults.”

Teaching tech to an older audience also sets the stage for future career opportunities. As the number of senior adults continues to swell, so does the need for careers serving that population. Some universities require participation in Cyber-Seniors by students studying to become medical professionals, recreational therapists, pharmacists and other jobs that involve working with older adults. And coders and other tech wizards will be in demand to find solutions for age-related issues.

“Most kids are interested in technology — it’s the sexy subject,” Cassaday says. “(Mentoring) allows them to combine technology with a real-life work situation. Not all of them will come away thinking, ‘Gee, I’ve decided I want to work with seniors.’ But some of them will come away thinking, ‘Gee, maybe I should focus on developing technology that addresses some of the challenges that we as a society are going to face because of the aging tsunami.’”

Even young people who don’t have career aspirations involving technology or seniors benefit from participating. Lopez has seen introverted students blossom when they realize how much they have helped their grateful mentees.

“These kids go from being completely underestimated and marginalized — like many seniors, actually — to being the most valued person in the room,” she says. “They’re respected for their knowledge. They’re appreciated for their help. They really, really do shine in these settings. They’re just like rock stars in that environment. And it totally boosts their self-confidence.”

Teeniors and Cyber-Seniors train young people before they begin any coaching sessions. Cyber-Seniors mentors complete six online training sessions, each one featuring a video followed by a quiz. Students must pass all six quizzes to become a certified mentor. At Teeniors, the young people attend an in-person two-hour orientation and then volunteer for two hours of mentoring to make sure they are a good fit.

Both groups stress the importance of individual mentoring sessions over a classroom setting. 

“That is by far the most successful way not only for seniors to learn, but also for the young people to get the real value of it,” Lopez says. “For both of them to get incredible impact that has nothing to do with tech support.”

And that impact is perhaps the most surprising benefit of such programs. Brothers Brock and Logan Chenicek, students at Leon High School in Tallahassee, Florida, volunteer as tech coaches through their Key Club’s participation in a program called Mentor Up. Both have discovered that their mentees value time spent with the teens as much as they do the knowledge they gain. 

“It surprised me how often the seniors ask me about myself,” Brock says. “Just about everyone I have worked with so far has asked where I go to school, where I want to go to college and what my aspirations are in life. It’s really fun getting to know them, and it makes it a very personal experience.”

“After doing this hard core for the last three years, I now realize the main service we provide is not tech support. It is human connection.”

Logan recalls discovering that one of his mentees builds ponds in his spare time.

“He pulled up some pictures of one he built. I just never thought someone would build ponds on their own, but it was extremely interesting to hear about.”

Leslie Spencer, associate state director for advocacy and outreach at AARP in Tallahassee, facilitates the Key Club’s monthly Mentor Up events. Spencer held a screening of the Cyber-Seniors documentary at the Tallahassee Senior Center and asked if any of the Leon High School members would like to volunteer as mentors at the film’s conclusion. The sessions went so well that club members readily agreed to make the program an ongoing one. Since that time, Spencer has been moved by the cross-generational bonding that takes place at each event.

“It’s just beautiful, because sometimes they end up taking selfies together,” she explains. “The participant will be talking about their grandchildren, and then the student will be talking about what they’re doing in school and their aspirations. It’s been really heartwarming to see.”

Lopez sums it up neatly.

“After doing this hard core for the last three years,” she says, “I now realize the main service we provide is not tech support. It is human connection.”

This story originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

4 thoughts on “Teaching tech

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  1. A couple of Key Club kids taught how to use a couple of functins on my then new SMARTphone last winter at a conference.


  3. The proliferation and general acceptance of texting offer an obvious parallel to Gresham’s law. Just as bad money drives out good, the brief, off-the-cuff messages that constitute the bulk of such communication supplant thoughtful, better reasoned, and more completely expressed sharing of ideas, emotion, and information that is possible in a well written letter. A text message, of course, could be both eloquent and meaningful, and a letter could be poorly written. On balance, however, the truncated words, dubious grammar, and shallowness of content that constitute the bulk of texting have become a sort of inflation in our verbal currency. I would guess that some individuals will send more texts in a single week than the number of letters they would write in a lifetime. Each digital vowel and consonant, every emoji and acronym, and every description of the oatmeal one had for breakfast dilute the value of the correspondence. Can “OMG” convey the awe inspired by sight of a distant glacier? Does “LOL” describe the wit of an Oscar Wilde play?

    Many collections have been published containing the “world’s greatest correspondence,” as assessed by editors and scholars of disparate taste and applying varied criteria. I will not hold my breath while waiting for publication of “OMG — A Collection of the World’s Greatest Text Messages.”


    Don Reid
    Past President, Kiwanis Club of Ellensburg, WA

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