Monday, April 14, 2008

The Senior and the PC: Mystery Out, Mastery In

Tom Kamber’s organization does what many people think is the impossible: teaching PC skills to New York City’s seniors sector. Kamber is founder and executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), which reaches out to older adults and draws them into the information age. One of its attractions is a Web site:

By learning PC basics, seniors can search the Iinternet and connect to the digital community of neighbors, friends and family. “If they're not online, then digital community becomes something only young people can do,” Kamber says. And seniors are great community-builders.

Kamber says OATS is the only organization in the city solely dedicated to helping senior citizens with technology. “It's all we do,” he says. “We do a variety of different kinds of training programs and we work at 26 different locations across the city.” City Councilmember Gale Brewer has been a major champion of OATS – as the Chair of the Council’s Committee on Technology and as an elected official who is a major advocate of issues affecting New Yorkers over 60.

Since 2004, this nonprofit organization has offered programs at senior centers, community technology labs, and other locations around the city. To date, OATS has served over 3500 older adults and has taught over 3200 sessions of technology training.

OATS does not advertise to find participants. Rather, they work to create partnerships with senior centers, which are natural community hubs of information. Word-of-mouth is their greatest recruiting tool.

OATS currently has ten trainers at 30 sites across the city.
Kamber says the best teachers for OATS aren’t necessarily the techies because his classes want to learn how to use a computer more than how it works. So he looks for teachers who are patient, friendly and interested in working with seniors.

He cites the success of OATS trainer Renee Martinez, a former customer service representative at West Elm. While she was still at the furniture and accessory retailer, Kamber says a customer called to say the slats had not been delivered with the bed.

As related to him: “The woman was really irate, so they put her on with Renee. And Renee was like, ‘Well, we've got some slats here on the shelf from another bed. Listen, you're not too far from me - I'll just bring them over right now.’

When she arrived, Rene picked the mattress up off the bed and she put the slats down, put the bed back down, and she said, ‘There, I think that'll work pretty well for you.’ ”The woman was beside herself with joy that somebody actually took care of her problem in a direct and immediate way, and was patient with her, and listened to her concern, and solved it immediately.”

“That kind of ability to communicate is our first concern,” he says.

OATS is helping to train several ReServists in conjunction with their placements at non-profits and civic institutions. Among them is Thai Jason, a ReServist relationship manager at ReServe. She enrolled in a workforce development class to get the training she never had the time or need to acquire in her 27 years of running a firm that produced jingles for advertising. She brings the skills she’s learning back to ReServe, and immediately puts them to use.

Thai’s OATS experience and other stories of bridging the technology divide have been documented in Generation Blend: Managing Across the Technology Age Gap, a book written by OATS board member Rob Salkowitz. (Published by John Wiley & Sons, a Microsoft Executive Leadership Series book.)

Kamber says the Web site,, is "just getting its own little life. Right now we've got about 600 people using it every month, which from a Web site perspective is kind of small, but for a program which serves senior citizens, it isn't so bad. Then we send calendar blast emails to another 1500, which is really solid.

“But I'd like to see 10,000 users on that a month. I can see them swapping information and commentary and blogs and recipes. I think those are the coolest things that we do, those three areas.”

Can teaching seniors how to text message on their cell phones be far behind?

You can visit the Senior Planet Web site at

For more on Rob Salkowitz’s book Generation Blend: Managing Across the Technology Age Gap, visit

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