Then the pandemic left her alone in her studio apartment with poor TV reception and a few DVDs — unable to go to the nearby gym, head to Weight Watchers meetings in Waco or meet with friends. Her daughter, who works for a tech company in California, found out about Senior Planet in April and suggested she try it. She waited three months, becoming more and more desperate for things to do.
“The first time I went on Senior Planet I was hooked,” Bailey says. “It gave me my world back and more than that, a whole new world.” Now she joins stretch or chair yoga classes to keep fit; participates in the virtual book club; and takes tech classes, even learning how to use an HDMI cable so she can watch YouTube videos from her computer on the bigger TV screen. She’s in Senior Planet discussion groups where she’s met people from across the country and often takes part in several workshops each day.
The idea for OATS/Senior Planet began when Kamber was working on part of the project to revitalize Lower Manhattan after 9/11. An 87-year-old woman in the area called him after learning about his website launch related to the project. But she didn’t have a computer and didn’t know about the internet.
Kamber ended up tutoring her in his office.
OATS was founded in 2004 in New York City as an outgrowth of those lessons. It now has Senior Planet physical centers in five additional cities: Palo Alto, California; Denver; Rockville, Maryland; Plattsburgh, New York; and San Antonio. Classes are entirely online during the pandemic, which allows anyone from across the country to participate, but in-person instruction will resume when it’s safe to do so.
Engagement erases isolation
Senior Planet programs are designed to teach adults 60 and older basic computer skills — including how to start, stop, mute, skip ads and enlarge a YouTube video — and more advanced options. Its interactive online classes, offered in English, Spanish and Chinese, are free to anyone of any age. About 50 classes are on the schedule each week.
Participants can decide to just listen, speak up with questions or type comments in the chat area. Most sessions aren’t archived for future playback, although some how-tos are posted to Senior Planet’s YouTube channel, but popular courses are offered frequently.
“In some of our classes, we find that they come early and stay late to talk to each other,” Kamber says. “Our trainers seek out opportunities to engage people. They draw people out.” Follow-up with students has shown that participants are using their newfound knowledge.
Technology topics include a range of how-tos such as shopping on Amazon, using Google Maps and hosting a Zoom meeting. Some workshops focus on helping participants struggling with tech issues or learning how to keep their personal information secure. Better balance, chair yoga and stretching sessions are among Senior Planet’s fitness offerings.
“If I can Zoom, you can Zoom,” says Bailey, who decided to become a member of Senior Planet to go along with her 17-year AARP membership. “It’s not that complicated. You just need somebody to guide you through it. And that’s what Senior Planet knows how to do.”
Linda Dono is an executive editor for AARP. Previously, she served as a reporter and editor for USA Today, Gannett News Service and newspapers in four states, including The Cincinnati Enquirer.