What’s old is new again: Seniors learn to use tech, smartphones and apps

It was a real-life “Back to the Future” moment that played out recently in Buckhead.

Stealing a peek at the large screen mounted on a wall behind him in the computer room at Lenbrook senior living community, Jim Cochrane raised the iPhone 6 to bring it closer to his mouth. “I’m going to create a new note,” the founder of Lenbrook’s Geezer Squad informed the roomful of residents who’d shown up for his first-of-its-kind class on using smart phones and tablets.

Then, Cochrane addressed his phone: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

There were smiles all around at this throwback phrase, a standard of pre-computer age typing classes. Followed by jaws dropping as Cochrane’s dictated words appeared in printed form on the large screen.

“Wow!” one white-haired “student” called out from the back of the room.

“It really is magic,” Cochrane concurred about voice recognition technology, which could ease the burden of elderly fingers and eyes straining to peck out emails and text messages. “The kids now don’t type. They all just talk!”

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If anyone can bridge the gap between new and, um, somewhat older, it’s Cochrane, 75, a self-proclaimed “computer geek” and Georgia Tech-trained electrical engineer who also has a Ph.D. in “pretty abstract math” from N.Y.U. Over the course of a 40-year telecommunications and information management career that took him everywhere from New Jersey and Chicago to Los Angeles and Amsterdam, he was one of the earliest users of AOL email and Prodigy, the first internet service provider.

Eight years ago, he and his wife, “Bear,” moved to Lenbrook, where he taught some beginner computer classes. And soon experienced his own ah-ha moment:

“I learned what was really needed was 101 Tech Support,” Cochrane said. “So we came up with the Geezer Squad.”

On the one hand, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a senior circuit version of the Geek Squad, the Best Buy operation that provides tech support online, by phone and in-home (although it’s not affiliated with Best Buy). Cochrane and a handful of other volunteer “geezers” respond to fellow Lenbrook residents’ questions and requests for assistance on basic matters related to their personal technology. It’s “a lot‘My computer doesn’t work,’” Cochrane said.)

And to matters … less basic. He recently helped one resident figure out his car’s value by using KBB.com, the website for the Kelley Blue Book. And another one track down an instructional video on YouTube for a 60-year-old German sewing machine that had belonged to his mother.

On the other hand, the Geezer Squad’s existence is proof of the increasingly significant role personal technology plays in the lives of seniors, opening some new doors for them and keeping old ones from closing entirely.

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During a visit to Lenbrook’s WiFi-enabled campus, you’re more likely to encounter a resident who reads on a Kindle, streams movies at home or displays photos on a smart phone than the stereotypical “old person” who can’t work the TV remote.

“I have a new iPhone and two iPads,” said Dottie Byrd, who was marveling after Cochrane’s class at the voice recognition technology aspect of her smartphone. “And my husband just got a new Android phone.”

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Increasingly, the Geezer Squad helps people set up or use these devices, said Cochrane, who’s responded to nearly 900 calls for assistance since he started logging them in July 2010. And that doesn’t even account for the other “geezers” (most don’t similarly track and report on contacts) or many of the people who take advantage of the twice-a-week office hours Cochrane holds in the computer lab.

A “How to use Uber” workshop last summer attracted about 40 people. Still, Cochrane wasn’t sure how much interest there’d be in the smartphone-tablet class when he scheduled it for mid-January, a time when he suspected many residents would be dealing with new devices they’d received as holiday gifts.

Answer: lots. Eighteen people had claimed every available seat in the computer lab by the time Cochrane opened the class by demonstrating the answer to a common question he gets — how to forward a photograph by email. Over the next hour, he genially worked his way through a 10-topic syllabus ranging from downloading apps and using Waze to get directions with updates on traffic conditions to searching Wikipedia and having Siri set a device’s alarm clock feature.

Going in, Cochrane had hoped to reduce the intimidation factor surrounding these devices. Mission accomplished, suggested seniors Irma and Ed Hart.

They’d come to the class to learn more about the smartphone their grown children had finally convinced Irma to replace her flip phone with.

“We gotta stay in the loop,” Ed chuckled. “If you’re not texting, you’re nowhere.”

Having struggled to forward photos in the past, they’d definitely appreciated that part of the class. But even that wasn’t the most valuable takeaway for Irma where her snazzy new phone was concerned:

“I learned I’m not going to break it!”

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