High school students from Girls Who Code, a national non-profit organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology, are taking on the challenge of helping seniors learn technology to reduce their feelings of isolation and loneliness.
The team, consisting of Heewon Kim, Oumou Camara, Paula Sante, and Elizabeth Paz (see photo), created Elders Connect, a website dedicated to teaching seniors how to use technology to better connect with friends and family. This project was the culmination of a 7-week summer immersion program in Los Angeles, sponsored by IBM, for 10th and 11th grade girls that taught coding, provided exposure to new technology, and shared introductions to female engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs.
“The most prominent reason for creating Elders Connect was to make a website where people like my grandmother could learn to navigate the web in order to communicate more easily to the rest of their families and avoid feeling lonely,” said Elizabeth Paz.
Social isolation is a major issue for seniors. A recent University of California, San Francisco study found that people 60-years-old and older who reported feeling lonely saw a 45 percent increase in their risk for death. Isolated elders also had a 59 percent greater risk of mental and physical decline than their more social counterparts.
The team also wanted to disprove the perception that the aging population were incapable of familiarizing themselves with and using technology.
“We wanted to help our elders become confident in using the Internet by providing a resource and ‘how-to’ guide for using the latest technology,” said Kim. “Through the website, we hope to encourage seniors to become more socially active by engaging in social media and video chatting programs so they can communicate with their friends and family. Personally, with my grandparents in Korea, I saw it as an effective way to connect with them more often.”
Finally, the team wanted to find new ways of encouraging seniors to learn technology.
“The simple things can often be big tasks,” said Kim. Given that, the team decided their site, along with any other technology resource for seniors, needs to be entertaining, incorporate easy to follow video tutorials, leverage brain games, use role models, and ensure that there was always an accessible “Elders-mode” built into sites and apps, including larger font sizes, different colors, and easy to press buttons.
“There is no doubt that incorporating technology into the lives of our growing elderly population will help reduce social isolation, promote wellness and enhance independent living,” said Susann Keohane, a master inventor with IBM Accessibility who is researching how technology can improve a senior’s quality of life. “I love that this team took on the challenge and are thinking about our parents and grandparents. All technology should be designed with the aging population in mind to increase interactions with friends, family, and caregivers, especially as their physical and cognitive abilities decline.”
IBM has a deep commitment to supporting and increasing women’s involvement in STEM. As part of the 2016 Girls Who Code program, IBM sponsored four immersion programs in Austin, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, and offered speakers, held workshops, hosted field trips, and volunteered mentors to inspire and support the girls and introduce them to IBM.