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Omaha Magazine

Cyber Seniors

Sep 26, 2019 04:33PM ● By Chris Bowling

Do Space is abuzz with conversation at 9:30 a.m., and it is only 30 minutes into the weekly meetup. At tables around the meeting room, people huddle in front of laptops and phones as volunteers sit alongside, pointing at the screens. In one corner, Chuck Williams moves his hands back and forth as he describes to Ruth Muchemore how wireless technology communicates with devices such as her smartphone.

Williams soon takes out his own smartphone to show how he’s wirelessly linked it to another device he and Muchemore both use: a hearing aid.

“Enough to drive you crazy, right?” asks Williams, 72, as an exasperated but amused Muchemore, 87, shakes her head.

These conversations are typical for a Wednesday morning session of Cyber Seniors, a weekly session at Do Space’s innovative tech hub on 72nd and Dodge streets. Here seniors bring devices and tech questions to receive help from volunteers, primarily other seniors, between 9 a.m. and noon.

The program started soon after the nonprofit opened in 2015. Over the years it has become one of its most enduring and consistently well attended programs, in no small part due to the volunteers who run it. The 10 to 15 seniors who volunteer weekly are passionate and tech savvy, and being in the same age bracket as their students helps erase intimidation and levels the playing field for problem solving.

“When a senior talks to a senior, they speak the same language,” Williams says.

The goal to provide access and education to all has long been a mission statement of Do Space. The nonprofit aims to erase Omahans' barriers to understanding and using technology. Classes, communal workspaces, and access to everything from desktop computers to 3D printers are available to Do Space’s roughly 73,000 membership base, about 12,000 of whom are seniors over the age of 61, as of June 2019. Membership is required to access Do Space, however, registration is free.

Bringing a city up to speed on tech does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. That is especially true in a membership that includes a sweeping variety of tech literacy and personal access to computers.

When it came to serving senior citizens, executive director Rebecca Stavick says Do Space opted for a community-led solution. Rather than define what they think seniors needed to know, administrators allow the seniors to set their educational parameters and pace.

“We help people get coffee and doughnuts and then we make sure to get out of their way,” she says.

When the adminstrators floated the idea for a workshop for seniors, Carl Fosco, who had been a Do Space tour guide until then, jumped on the opportunity to get involved.

Fosco, 72, was a former director in human resources for companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield who retired in 2014. He didn’t have a career in tech like many of the volunteers, but he does have a penchant for people, and he’s always been an avid user of technology.

While Williams worked with Muchemore, Fosco greeted every timid wanderer at the door, racing across the room to meet them with a smile as well as coffee and cake. This program is about much more than doling out tech advice. It is a collaborative experience that oftentimes leans back and forth between a club and a help session.

“This place is kind of a perfect storm of social and tech,” Fosco says.

That is clear during Williams and Muchemore’s conversation. Muchemore is a retired nurse who sported chic multi-colored glasses and lavender nails that matched her iPhone case. She originally came to get help with her new Apple Watch, but stayed to ask Williams question after question about technology.

Muchemore says this is the only place in Omaha she can get tech help without any level of intimidation.

“It’s just comforting,” she says.

In weekly sessions, topics run the gamut from learning how to organize photo libraries to drawing whiteboard diagrams explaining how the internet works. That Wednesday morning, they even helped someone rid their computer of malicious software.

It all comes back to a basic desire to help and make interacting with tech seem more friendly.

Volunteer Steve Sidner, 69, says, “We want people to walk out of here like, ‘Golly, I had no idea I could do this.’”

It seems to be working. The program routinely draws about 20 to 30 people every week, once swelling to 70 people, who occupied Do Space’s entire first floor.

Weston Thomson, director of community learning at Do Space, says the difference maker is the volunteer help.

“Without that,” he says, “Those programs would cease to exist.”

He also says that of the approximately 100 Do Space volunteers who rack up 400 volunteer hours every month, the senior demographic is one of the most passionate and loyal. And they come from myriad tech backgrounds.

Sidner, tall with curly white hair and a “Warren has a plan” T-shirt, spent years as a computer programmer and software manager before retiring in 2014. Williams, a retired Air Force member, worked at the Village Pointe Apple store and now offers one-on-one Mac tutoring. But their experience isn’t their defining characteristic. It’s their genuine interest in chipping away the notion that tech is unusable after a certain age.

“Some people say, ‘I don’t understand this,’” says Keith Jones, 64, a retired tech worker who specialized in mainframes. “It’s not difficult, you just don’t have the knowledge to use it yet. So let’s give you the nudge.

This program’s hallmark isn’t seniors gathering in a room every Wednesday. Its atmosphere is defined by curiosity and the attendees’ inherent desire to catch up with the world around them.

Thomson says in addition to Cyber Seniors, it is common to see seniors sitting alongside youth in the computer lab, taking classes on coding or other subjects.

Stavick says that should come as no surprise to anyone. No age group is more predisposed to understand a computer than another, she says, and the idea a senior can’t stay involved in tech doesn’t make any sense.

“Especially considering that the technology we have here today, someone had to have built that,” Stavick says. “Guess what—it was the previous generation.”

That’s the point of Do Space’s outreach to older generations, including Cyber Seniors: open seemingly closed doors by putting the right tools in seniors’ hands and giving them a push. While volunteers have no assumptions that one visit will make anyone a savant, they at least hope the sessions build up confidence.

That’s been the experience for Elaine Wells, a 73-year-old, semi-retired marriage counselor and frequent Cyber Seniors attendee. Each week she brings a project to work on, and, little by little, she feels like she is gaining more of a footing in a tech world that could only become more isolating if she stood still.

“What I don’t think a lot of young people realize is as old people, we may not be connected all the ways [they] are, but we’re still vital,” Wells says. “This is a place where we can actualize our potential.”

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This article was printed in the October 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Carl Fosco at Do Space

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