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Digital Seniors on line for expansion

Amelia Devine is Digital Seniors’ new general manager, and she is energised: “The time is now” to push ‘go’ on expansion plans.

The Wairarapa-grown charity was set up five years ago to help the region’s seniors ‘conquer the digital age’ and has proven so successful it’s looking for new communities in which to establish.

Cathy Hardinge started the charity in 2018 to provide friendly help, support and expertise to people over 65 who are feeling bewildered by digital technology.

She chose Wairarapa to launch the service because it has the largest senior population per capita in New Zealand and some of the highest rates of senior social isolation and loneliness.

But it also has a strong tradition of volunteering and community support.

Today, the charity supports older people across the region through several regular learning hubs at local libraries and retirement villages, home visits, and video and phone support – all free of charge.

The model is clearly working.

In five years, Digital Seniors’ volunteers have provided 3,367 hours of assistance to over 3,700 Wairarapa seniors and tackled countless tech challenges.

The size or complexity of the tech challenge is no measure of the importance of the solution to the individual seeking Digital Seniors’ advice and support.

Big or small, the charity’s volunteers help get the job done.

Getting someone online for the first time, helping a client organise photos on a smartphone, connecting a senior with their family and friends via video call, and setting up a client’s online bill payments are all part of the service.

As Niki Jones, Digital Seniors’ community collaboration lead Wairarapa said, “digital inclusion equals social inclusion.”

With many everyday tasks that used to be completed in-person or over the phone being replaced by online systems and services, older people can feel frustrated and isolated, he said.

“I think lots of people are having problems around banking, and confidence around banking, and whether or not they are safe online”, Jones said.

The “patient, consistent presence” provided by Digital Seniors’ volunteers in Wairarapa helps people gain the skills they need in a friendly environment, helping clients “overcome the stress and feel more relaxed and [be able to] explore”, Jones said.

One of those ‘patient presences’ is retired managing director Roger Fraser, who has volunteered since the beginning of Digital Seniors’ Wairarapa journey.

Already comfortable with technology because of his career, he was “inspired by the work [Digital Seniors] was setting out to do.”

“[Digital Seniors] was a timely intervention as it was the period when cheques were disappearing and people were being forced onto the internet by default, really”, he said.

Fraser doesn’t mince his words: “And there’s this assumption that everyone knows how to turn a computer on, and knows how to fill out a form online and so on. And that’s, of course, b*****t.”

The effects of older people in the region feeling ‘overtaken’ by technology is something retired teacher Len Cooper has seen in his two years as a Digital Seniors volunteer, and his 20 years with SeniorNet.

“[Seniors] weren’t brought up with smart phones or computers”, he said.

“With banks closing down and the need to do everything online, many people are learning later in life to catch up with what some of us have been doing for 20 or 30 years.”

An easy manner, great interpersonal skills and patience are essential qualities for a Digital Seniors volunteer, Fraser said, and can help connect clients with their technology in positive and beneficial ways.

He helped one man in his 90s install an app on his new phone to manage his share portfolio: “he was just thrilled that he could manage his shares, see them going up and down day-by-day.”

For another living in a rural community, Fraser shared the skills and tools she needed to shop and bank online.

“She’s quite confident now. She’s just bought herself a new oven online. She loves dance and music, so she watches YouTube. We’ve got her a faster internet connection, so she can do that.

“It’s transformed her life.”

Fay Evans, Patsy Camden and Ngaere Brownlie are three frequent users of Digital Seniors in Wairarapa and clear fans of the service and its people.

Evans, who is 93, found she couldn’t “keep up with smart things that they do on these computers. But you get someone like Rhonda [McCormick, Wairarapa’s community service lead] and she fixes it for me.”

She particularly appreciates that “Digital Seniors will come to you, and that’s absolutely remarkable. Not only that, they come with such a nice manner. It’s just lovely.”

The respect and patience of Digital Seniors’ volunteers are also valued by Brownlie, who “has a few clues” about digital technology, but finds “so much has moved on since I left the workforce.”

“They never ever make you feel like an idiot. That’s just a huge plus.”

“It just kind of gives you a bit of power. When the next time a certain thing happens or comes up on your phone or device, you actually know. Oh, yes, I just do ‘dah-dah-dah’ and it’s done. You feel quite smart.”

Dropping into Digital Seniors’ Wednesday session “has become something of a regular activity” for Camden, who keeps a note of all the digital niggles she needs help to tackle.

“Rhonda who does the bookings has me down for a 10 o’clock slot without me asking for it.”

Empowering older people to get tech-savvy is “so satisfying”, McCormick said. “It really is one of the best jobs, helping someone.”

A successful pilot on Auckland’s north shore will continue, and other areas of the country will start to experience some of the Digital Seniors magic next year.

“We intend to launch in two new communities at the start of 2024”, Devine said. “Launching two at the same time means they can support each other and work through things together.”

“The intention was always to go nationwide. But, we don’t want to rush. Every community has different needs, a different profile and personalities.”

Devine said that tailoring the service to a community’s specific characteristics and strengths is key to Digital Seniors’ success.

To find out more about Digital Seniors and how you can help or access their services, visit www.digitalseniors.co.nz

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