Weather Updates

Stimulus program brings Internet to senior citizens

Favorite websites for seniors

• to better see the computer screen

• offers free typing tutorials

• offers exercises in using the mouse, called mousercising

• to send greetings and cards

• for music downloads and to drag-and-drop photos

• for accessible technology

• for technology tools and services

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Jerry Walters communicates daily via e-mail and with Facebook friends, is reconnecting with relatives and acquaintances and loves to watch online video of his favorite old-time gospel singers.

Walters is so hooked on the Web, he spends three hours a day doing searches, practicing his typing skills and sending messages to friends and family. The only difference between Walters and every other Web-addicted blogger, social gamer and coupon clicker is that he is 70 years old and first logged on to the Internet about six months ago.

“It’s amazing,” said Walters, a native of Kosciusko, Miss., made famous for being Oprah Winfrey’s hometown.

“One day I typed in the word ‘apples’ and I had no idea there were so many kinds of apples.”

Walters’ introduction to the virtual world at the Elois McCoy senior-living complex in the Lawndale neighborhood comes from President Obama’s stimulus program’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP).

BTOP awarded $4.7 million to Connected Living, a Quincy, Mass.-based firm dedicated to connecting seniors to computer technologies, to install the technology and hire “ambassadors” to implement the program in the Chicago area.

Connected Living’s program is operating at 10 private-pay and 23 affordable-housing buildings in Northern Illinois. The privately owned apartments include two in Chicago and eight in the suburbs run by Brookdale Senior Living, the nation’s largest owner and operator of senior-living communities. The public housing sites are run by housing authorities as well as by Chicago’s senior-living operators Bethel New Life, Blair Minton Associates, Habilitative Systems, Sankofa Safe Child Initiative and Senior Lifestyle Corp.

Public works money from Illinois Jobs Now financed the 18 percent grant match, at $1.2 million, and Connected Living and its partners are contributing an additional $925,000 in labor, services and materials to complete the project.

“We believe that seniors deserve a voice [through the Internet], especially because their impact on children and their communities is so significant,” said Sarah Hoit, CEO and co-founder of Connected Living and a former AmeriCorps deputy director for national service.

“We could put computers out on tables, but we have learned that we must bring engagement to the experience to really give seniors an interactive lifestyle.”

Connected Living requires seniors to pass a 12-week computer-proficiency course in order to get a computer and Internet connection installed in their rooms.

The company recruits seniors to lead classes in topics of interest to their peers, such as how to take virtual museum tours, explore the history of great inventions and research how to overcome isolation and depression.

“Some of the elderly in these residences have rarely been out of their rooms and have developed no social constructs,” Hoit said. “We create a secure online community among the residents so they can get to know each other.”

The residents post profiles with their photos, much like a Facebook community, and connect by clicking on each other’s photos. After they’ve learned to send e-mails to friends and family, they’re hooked, Hoit said.

The company is starting a new program to let local high school students earn community-service credits by working with the seniors on technology and, in the process, building friendships.

“The seniors need someone to tell their stories to, to teach them technology and to let them know that someone cares,” Hoit said. “The kids need mentors, caring adults and someone to teach them about history and job skills.”

The program teaches seniors how to scan and e-mail photos, work video cameras, and will soon include communicating via Skype and video chat.

The need to build elderly people’s tech skills is particularly important because most people learn about the latest computing advances at work, and because they can’t easily work with tiny screens and keyboards common on mobile devices, research shows.

Connected Living is hiring local residents to run the program.

Tracey Robertson, a South Side native, works as the training and operations director for 14 of the Chicago area BTOP communities. She is overseeing the program’s expansion by month’s end to Oak Park, Moline and Rockford.

Robertson sets up the programs, introduces them to the seniors and oversees Connected Living computer program managers who work daily with the residents.

Robertson first learned about her computer proficiency when she worked in corporate administrative positions and realized that she loved teaching technology skills to friends and family. She started consulting, speaking and teaching for organizations, and developed curricula, facilitated training and taught classes at the Gary Comer Youth Center before being hired at Connected Living.

“I found that my heart was for bringing computer literacy to disenfranchised people,” Robertson said.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.