Office for the Aging

 
 

Technology and Older Adults in New York State: OATS Part 2

Alex Glazebrook is the director of training and technology for Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), and oversees the organization’s flagship location: the Senior Planet Exploration Center in Manhattan. An ex-Wall Street financier, Glazebrook left the hustle and bustle of Wall Street six years ago to return to school, and while doing so started working part-time at OATS.

“I left finance because it wasn’t fulfilling for me. I need to help people,” he said.

The realization that older adults needed help with technology came from a career-changing experience he had while teaching tech classes, part of getting his master’s in social work.

“I was doing a lecture called How to Protect your Personal Information Online. I walked into a lecture hall in Brooklyn College, and there are 90 people sitting in the hall. All older adults. I thought: ‘Wow, these people are disenfranchised.’ They were not being helped in the ways they needed. There is such a need and a desire, and our society as a whole has to catch up and realize this.

“We need to stop mythologizing aging and recognize people for who they are. The sheer number of people there that day and their energy was amazing. I was hooked from then on.

“OATS has such a powerful mission, and I love technology. It was a good marriage.”

NYSOFA had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Glazebrook about OATS, Senior Planet, and his unique outlook on older adults, community connections, and technology.

NYSOFA: Tell me about the “average client” that walks in the door here.
“It’s a range. We have people who are coming in who have never used a computer before and they just want to have some hands-on time; learn the basics. And we have people that have recently retired and are looking to do more and move into the next phase of their life. People have all different needs here, and we try to provide a mix of programs to serve those needs. Demographically, our members represent the entire cross-section of New York City: rich, poor, all racial and ethnic backgrounds, different ages, all sitting next to each other in a class. Technology doesn’t discriminate and neither do we.”

NYSOFA: What effect, from the Center’s view, are you having on people’s lives?
“I think that on the surface people can… assume it’s just digital literacy, just skill acquisition, and that’s it. But when you peel beneath that, people are coming here with diverse sets of needs to try to change their lives, empower themselves, and actually use technology to improve their lives. They’re using Fitbits and achieving fitness goals, for example. And they’re connecting socially. Being able to do more than they used to changes their lives, and technology in that sense is simply a means to an end.

“Our emphasis on having technology as a key ingredient of everything we do is important. It’s threaded through the experience here, and learning and using it changes people. When you marry life-changing technology with social interaction and innovation, people change—their whole outlook improves. We know this from daily observation and also from the formal survey instruments we deploy to measure the impact our work has in critical life areas such as social engagement and health management.”

NYSOFA: In 30 years what will you be teaching here?
“A need for an organization like OATS and places like Senior Planet is going to just evolve with the way that technology evolves. So who knows? In 30 years maybe it’s people are trying to navigate their self-driving cars and how that impacts their lives, and we’re doing training on setting up your new autonomous vehicles. From the sound of it, that may happen in five years! But I think the organization will evolve as technology evolves. This need for people to connect, to be digitally literate, but to also mesh that with their actual needs in their life, is always going to be here; it’s just going to evolve.

“We’re seeing that now, because 10 years ago we were doing very basic computer skills acquisition, with all of our themes threaded in it, but now people are coming in saying ‘No, I know all that. I want to do Photoshop. I want to build my own website to sell my products, I want to get healthy, I need to start banking online.’ You have to adjust and innovate as you go along.”

NYSOFA: I’ve heard quite a bit from your members today about the digital entrepreneur classes. What’s one of the successful projects that you’ve seen developed here through that curriculum?
“My favorite is a business started by an older woman named Rachel. She had a business called Opera Nuts, fancy chocolate nuts and almonds that are packaged in a unique way. She came to us because she wanted to build a website and she wanted to learn how to accept PayPal payments. So we taught her that. Now she has a full website. She was making all the nuts in her apartment in Manhattan and she just moved to a co-packing facility. She’s gotten so big that she needed to branch out. She actually hired people. The food is absolutely delicious. She had the idea but couldn’t capitalize upon it because her tech skills were limited. In that sense, technology was the missing piece. She had the idea, the drive—she just needed to sync it all together. We enabled her to do that.”

NYSOFA: Can you share some insight about the intergenerational aspect of the center?
“Intergenerational is always part of the work we’ve done, and we’d like to do more with that. It brings people together in different ways. We currently have interns from the City University of New York (CUNY) service corps working at Senior Planet, and just yesterday a 10-year-old was here doing community service as part of his preparation for his bar mitzvah.”

NYSOFA: What would your top 3 “phrases/thoughts” about OATS and its Senior Planet experience be?
1. Life-changing
2. Magnetic (organization, system-generated magnetism, humming with activity)
3. Empowering

NYSOFA: What would you say about someone who has heard about the center but who is hesitant to come in?
“Come and see. This is a completely free and safe place to ask questions, to learn, and to grow. There is no judgment here. Anyone 60 and older is welcome. And it’s really a collaborative experience. We couldn’t operate without the people… we need those who may be a little hesitant to come in… we need those people here because they are the people that drive us to be better and make the community feel more inclusive and well-rounded. There is nothing to fear here, we’re harnessing technology to change the way we age, so please join us!”