Office for the Aging

 
 

OATS: helping older New Yorkers embrace the digital age

Editor’s note: Tom Kamber is a keynote speaker at this week’s Aging Concerns Unite Us conference in Albany. His address takes place Wednesday, June 7 at 9 am.

Tom Kamber, PhD, is the founder and executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), the award-winning nonprofit that “harnesses the power of technology to change the way we age.”

Since 2004 OATS has helped more than 30,000 older New Yorkers embrace the digital age by providing free technology programs that enable them to get online and use mainstream devices to connect with friends and family; manage their health and finances; express themselves creatively; and engage in civic and community affairs. In addition to providing high-quality multi-week courses at scores of local community partner sites throughout New York City, OATS has also established two flagship Senior Planet Exploration Centers, one located in Manhattan and the other in Plattsburgh, NY. These venues are the first technology-themed community centers for older adults in the nation.

NYSOFA staff recently visited the Senior Planet Center in Manhattan, located at 127 West 25th Street in Chelsea. What we saw was a welcoming, vibrant environment with a bustling group of older New Yorkers taking classes on computer basics, attending an online travel booking workshop, and getting fit as members of Team Senior Planet, an exercise program using Fitbits—wearable devices that track exercise and vital signs and remind users about diet.

The look and feel of the street-level center is open, modern, comfortable, and inviting. Among the dozens of devices laying out in the open for free use include iPads, desktop PCs, Chromebooks, digital cameras, and even two telepresence robots. Most noticeable, though, are the attitudes of Senior Planet’s members. Bright smiles, upbeat conversations, and an undeniable excitement permeate the room. In short, the center gives off a cool vibe.

Dr. Kamber sat down with NYSOFA to discuss the formation of the Senior Planet Exploration Centers, his outlook for the future, and how his talented OATS team works to create the settings and programs that get older adults to jump into the digital era and start “aging with attitude.”

NYSOFA: What inspired you to integrate technology into a senior center? How did you come to think of beginning OATS?

“I was sitting at a desk, working for a different nonprofit, and we had built a website to connect people in lower Manhattan after 9/11. My phone rang, and it was an older woman on the phone. She said, “I’m 80 years old and I want to come to this ‘website launch’ event, but I don’t know anything about the Internet and don’t even own a computer, so I’m not sure I’d feel welcome.”

Her name was Pearl. She had come to New York as an adolescent in the 1930s, knocking doors at the large homes along Prospect Park West to find work. She’d survived the Depression on her own as a pre-teen, yet here she was today, anxious about learning to use a computer.

Kamber realized that the symptom was an inability to use technology, but “the real problem was ageism,” he said.
Over the next year, Tom took Pearl under his wing and showed her how to use a computer, email, and other basic skills. Through that encounter, the idea to mesh older adults with technology was born. The idea would prove to be life-changing for Tom, and as it turns out, for thousands of older people, as well.

NYSOFA: What was your Senior Planet moment?
Kamber admitted that the idea was actually an anti-moment—he had already put together a top-notch group of trainers and a world class curriculum.

“The curriculum was being taught at 70 partner site locations. We had an excellent program but no venue—no door that people walked through that said ‘OATS, or Senior Planet.’ Year after year we knew we were making a difference. For seven years we were giving the best training in the world, but the thought was that we need to get serious about getting a home for Senior Planet, that we could be doing so much more,” he said. “We were doing great work, but at the end of the day the feeling was that work was getting up and leaving the room.”

NYSOFA: Similar to a traveling band. Your staff would go, present the class, and leave…
“Yes, exactly. Just like the song ‘The Load Out’ by Jackson Browne.” (laughs)
Kamber explained that at some point in 2010, the Senior Planet board of directors came up with a great strategic plan.

The prevailing thought, he said, was that “we’re a social change organization. We’re about using technology in the context of aging to improve the experience of growing older.”

After all, he reflected, “Pearl was not about technology, Pearl was about Pearl. Suddenly I saw that as a society we’re in the middle of two revolutions colliding: a technology revolution and a longevity revolution, and that older people are standing in that intersection, lost.”

From then on, the idea of the Senior Planet centers was officially off the ground.

NYSOFA: Can you expand on the term ‘longevity revolution?’
“We’ve added more years to the human lifespan in the last 100 years than in all of previous history. From a personal standpoint, when I was a kid, my grandparents—when they hit 60—their life expectancy was maybe another 10 years. People retired at 65. There was a compressed idea of aging. People had to run to Florida and play golf. And that’s what they did. Today, if you hit 60, your life expectancy is into your 80s and beyond. Twenty years is a long time. There is a new awareness of health. Many people are living to the end really healthily. Many 60- and 70-year olds are full of energy.”

NYSOFA: And with that are the Baby Boomers. So you have more people, and they are much healthier and more active in general, correct?
“Exactly. The longevity revolution, for me, as an activist, is a petri dish of awesomeness.”

NYSOFA: Your website talks about an interesting concept. Can you explain the phrase “technology agnostic?”
“We teach some Apple stuff, some Google stuff, Wix for websites, etc. We have a bias toward mainstream technology and affordable gadgets. We assume that next year some great stuff is going to happen. There’s no reason to get tied down to any one platform or piece of technology.

NYSOFA: System designers—it’s another interesting term. Can you explain what that entails? It seems as if OATS is dedicated to educating people on the latest tech, rather than dumbing tech or training down to accommodate fear. That says you know your audience.
“A great designer, if you’re lucky, gets to design from the inside out,” Kamber said, citing the work of great architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. “You start from a place of asking ‘what does the customer want?’ We started building from eyeballs outward. Older adults wanted community, to engage with each other, some slow-paced learning options, and no tests. We started asking questions about what kind of technology they wanted. The answer was that they wanted to learn about email, the Internet, and basic computer skills.”

“A common response was ‘I feel like the world is passing me by.’ What’s passing them by is always a moving target. In 2004, we were teaching different skills. Now, we’re teaching Gmail, Google, Chromebooks, iPads, Fitbits, and we even have some drones.”

It is always evolving, Kamber said. “That’s why we’re technology agnostic,” and the centers are built to make that organically the case.

He added that ageism sometimes comes with good intentions, for example, when new technology is marketed to older adults.

To illustrate the point, Kamber uses the example of the “iPhone or Jitterbug?” mobile phone decision that some older people and their families find themselves facing. The Jitterbug, a mobile phone marketed directly to older adults, is “slightly easier to learn, but with a lot less power and ability to do things,” he said.

OATS tested the Jitterbug, and in their opinion, found there was no advantage for using it over the iPhone.

“An older person might learn the Jitterbug in 10% fewer hours. But then they miss out on the power of an iPhone, or they end up with less memory, an inferior camera, and lower screen resolution versus a comparably priced Android phone. We’re 35,000 people in and I can’t give you a single example of a person who couldn’t learn the mainstream stuff.”

NYSOFA: According to AARP, people age 55+ are the fastest growing demographic market when it comes to buying new gadgets—and those who do not jump in usually don’t because of socioeconomic reasons. How do you look at the slices of that 55+ demographic, in relation to the socioeconomic pie?
“We work with people 60+. I feel like older adults don’t get much support. We target older people. I think we’ve helped out people up to age 99. We favor the older people, in fact. The average age of those visiting our Manhattan center is 74.”

“There are a few interesting things about why I think this works. We don’t charge. There are a lot of reasons for that. It really does push people out, because people are anxious about spending money. Even if it’s $3. They wonder, ‘Am I doing it right? Am I wasting money?’ We take that stress away, and it also works for us logistically.”

“If you look at an ‘OATS map,’ 80% of the partner sites where we deliver programs are located in low-income areas,” Kamber said. The vast majority of people that come to us are low income, but they are not stigmatized here.”

He noted one example, taken from the Plattsburgh center in upstate, where a man was able to buy a device by applying savings methods he learned in the Senior Planet class on personal budget management.

“So, being free helps,” he said. “We get them in the door. It’s not that older adults won’t spend money, the issue is for them to make sure they are getting best value for their dollar,” he said.

Now, a Google Chromebook laptop costs around $300, a price point that Kamber believes will help more and more people ages 60+ access a world mostly hidden from many their age. It’s a world they might have never known existed without centers like Senior Planet.

NYSOFA: Can we talk a little more about system design as it applies to the programs and architecture?
“Any program or architectural design, all policy, begins with a viewpoint. For example, one can see everything from a cost benefit perspective, or one’s organizational capacity, or by political stream—all are legitimate. As I got working on the early stages of OATS, however, more and more the overall design started to come out of ‘aesthetic theory.’

It’s about ‘did I create an awesome experience for this person.’

“Senior Planet might be the last chance for an older person to do something really great. Meaning it’s a very important thing. He or she could come out of here thinking ‘I feel great. I feel spiritually uplifted from that.’ We’re committed to some kind of majestic accomplishment, to providing a chance at transformation for people. They’re bringing the energy. We’re providing opportunity—and when you see it activate, it’s like ‘Holy cow!’”

“It’s the same set of solutions that energizes somebody about vintage cars. The design of it, something that’s really beautifully and functional. Something really open. There are similarities.”

The Senior Planet center in Manhattan has curving walls, and a “peekaboo” window into the main training suite. Kamber said the room was designed to convey speed, momentum, movement, energy, and to stimulate the “feeling of something going on.”

The design goal, Kamber said, is to aid in the feeling that we’re all very much in this together and this space is designed to enforce that. There is not one place in here where you can’t see others, and they can’t see you.”

NYSOFA: Can you compare what you’re doing now, in context, to what it would have been 30 years ago?
It’s tricky. Aging as a field had such different parameters at the time.

Poverty used to be double 30 years ago. In the early 70s, some older people really were eating cat food. I would really like to think we would be doing something like Andy Warhol’s Kitchen. It was kind of the hub of artistic thought and activity.

I would like to think that if I was back in that period doing something in the area of aging services, it would be ‘what is the most boundary-pushing thing to do for older people to capture their energy and activity?’ That’s how I kind of imagine it.”

NYSOFA: In 30 years what do you think that a place like this might be doing?
“Politics aside, I think centers like this will become the Jet Blue of aging. We know that flying can be a horribly drab experience, or, thanks to new mindsets and a redesign of the experience, it actually can be pretty fun.

“I predict that over the next 15 years, older adults are going to take this pattern of ageism seriously, and start to take control of shaping a better experience.

“Older people will continue to excel at communicating here, and finding ways to live as completely and passionately as they can. We’ll be making sure that throughout the course of your life we can embrace you, as you are. When I look at aging, and ageism in the future, we’ll reach a point hopefully within 30 years…I kind of imagine, or hope, where ‘having a senior moment’ does not mean you forgot something, it means that you had a very creative impulse or inspiration.”

NYSOFA: Can you further explain the Jet Blue comparison?
“The role that technology plays—remember, ‘technology agnosticism’ means we have a wide sense of what is means to use technology. People aren’t going to need to learn how to use the mouse 30 years from now. They’re probably going to need some help with whatever holographic technology is going on, but the real action is the person. We’re really not about the technology. We’re about what goes on between the synaptic experiences and connections people make with each other when they are sitting next to each other working on something.

“30 years from now, the tech will just be whatever the tech is, but the concepts will probably be almost identical to what we’re doing here now. Which is about how do we as a team find out what older adults actually want? How do we come together and find cool ways to do that? How do we harness technology in safe ways to do that?

“Also the popular depiction of aging today is distorted. In reality, what everybody wants, almost universally, is for their lives to be about something, they want their relationships to be about something—being in an environment with other people that they have relationships with, they want to be part of a community that has meaning…yet if you look at mass media or most online content about older adults, it is incredibly de-meaning. It’s disrespectful. It’s totally youth-oriented. It’s full of ageist stereotypes and messages. It totally makes them invisible. This is why we launched a great website, SeniorPlanet.org, where older adults are depicted in real ways, and as breaking down false images.”

“So 30 years from now, I hope people will be using the things we’re doing, but also zeroing in on reshaping the dialogue on aging. Our website attracts 165,000 unique users per month, but there are 45 million older adults in this country. Why when they go on the Internet or why when they are on the treadmill—getting whatever content they use—are they looking at so-called reality TV and not at Senior Planet? Why are we not in that dialogue? Why are older adults not driving that conversation? Older people in America have special, critical ideas, skills, and experiences to contribute. Sometimes when things get messed up, it’s because people are not able to contribute. Ultimately I could see Senior Planet locations all over the country: in housing communities, senior centers; places where people live and go.

“But the energy of it all is going to be in that dialogue.

The philosophy and agenda for Senior Planet—for all of our facilities, programs, and content—is to make the world a better place for aging. Let older people change the way we age, being more creative and more productive, taking the leadership role in changing the dialogue and shaping a new America for all of us. And it’s a dialogue for everyone, regardless of age. After all, if we aren’t already older, we all will be someday.”