The silver silicon tsunami

The fastest-growing demographic of Internet users is eighty-five and older—and Daniel Jones is helping them keep up



I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taught my grandmother to text. I understand it’s confusing, and I always feel bad when she gives up. But there are so many things to learn: how to send a photo, how to make the font size readable, how to download Candy Crush. I’m lucky that she lives ten minutes away and I see her on every holiday (even the little ones). If we weren’t so close in proximity, it might be difficult to communicate. After all, she doesn’t trust Facebook. 

Enter Daniel Jones, a computer, Internet, and social networking expert who wants to help your technology-challenged elders. He’s been teaching for seven years, and his students number 2,000. But he’s no IT guy. “The analogy I like to use is, if a computer’s a car, I can teach you how to drive it,” says Jones. “But I can’t pop the hood and fix the problem.” And Jones is a good driver, but his true skills are interpersonal, and teaching technology is a medium in which he can exercise his skill in elder communication. “You can ask me the same question fifteen times in a row, and I’m not going to get mad at you,” he says. “That’s my job. To answer your questions and make you feel comfortable and teach you in a way that is not intimidating.” 

According to Jones, that’s all most older adults want, an atmosphere of patience and understanding. He has a way of explaining things that others might not realize need explaining. “I hear it all the time: ‘No one’s ever told me that before,’” Jones says. “Or, ‘No one’s ever taken the time to show me that before.’” He tells me it’s difficult for children or grandchildren to teach their older family because of the existing emotional dynamics between them. “I come in, and I’m completely objective,” he says. “I probably couldn’t teach my dad. Because again, there might be a frustration level there because I have an emotional connection with my dad, and I’ve known him for fifty-one years.”  

Jones’s methodology is based on three simple principles: patience, listening, and kindness. “Really listening,” he emphasizes, “to what they want to do and what they’re saying. And it might even be between the lines.” As for kindness, Jones explains that a lot of older adults have a spouse who has died or family that lives out of town. “They might not have a lot of kindness in their life,” he says with compassion. “People being respectful, and just being patient with them. It’s really that simple.” 

Despite the simplicity of Jones’s methodology, working with older adults requires a deep understanding of what they’re going through. Jones took courses through an organization called Lifespan to learn about what they deal with. “It’s basically a hub for all things needed for elder services,” he says. “So you call Lifespan and they will put you in touch with whomever you need. If you have housing problems, legal problems, if your mom is falling and you need help training her.” 

Through Lifespan, Jones has developed a thorough and profound understanding of the lives of older adults. “What are the things that come with aging?” he asks. “What are the psychological aspects of aging? What are the physical aspects? What are the fears, the barriers, intimidation? Legal issues, housing issues, spiritual issues. Everything about aging was covered in this program. So now when I teach I’m more aware of what the person might be going through.”  

In fact, Jones began his teaching career through contacts at Lifespan. A close friend of his was opening a senior-oriented hangout at the Maplewood YMCA called the Lilly Café. When he began teaching there in 2010, he did it free. “I didn’t charge a dime,” he says. In return, he could test his methodology out on anyone who wanted to participate. “Was I doing this right?” he asked himself. “Was I slow enough; was I patient enough; was I loud enough; was I showing things that were of interest?” He wanted to become the best teacher possible. 

The most important thing Jones learned in those first six months was the eagerness to learn that exists within the elder community. “When you’re eighty-two, you don’t necessarily stop learning or growing as people,” he says. “If you choose not to.” The program at the Lilly Café was so successful that the YMCA would like to open a Lifespan community center at every branch. 

A week after our conversation, I sit in on one of Jones’s classes at the Penfield YMCA—a seminar on the cloud. Afterward, Jones is excited to show me the Lifespan center downstairs. After a few greeting smiles from people who recognize him, he gestures to the room full of round tables full of conversing elders playing cards, drinking coffee, and buzzing with energy. “This is where it all happens,” he says. He shows me their calendar of events, and I see personal training sessions, “living healthy with diabetes,” and classes on all kinds of crafts. Racks of handmade clothing, cases of jewelry, and other pieces of art are displayed around the room, all made by the community. “Sometimes they have teachers like me come in,” says Jones, “but most of the time there is, say, one woman in the group who knows how to make jewelry, and she shows everyone else.” 

Daniel Jones’s business is not only to help connect families and teach technological literacy. He sees himself as part of an intertwined and growing web of support for the elder community, working every day to increase the value of their lives. That web is growing, and according to Jones, we need it. “They call it the silver tsunami,” says Jones. “This country has no idea what it’s in for.” The retired population grows every year, and the next ten to twenty are going to see a massive boom. A boom of people who need patience and kindness, but still have a strong desire to learn. Jones says the fastest-growing segment of people online are eighty-five and older. “And that tells me something.”  

In the end, Jones’s success comes from the way he treats people. He knows that older adults just want to be surrounded by a culture that’s supportive, patient, and kind. With the silver tsunami at high tide, that culture needs to boom as well. And that benefits everybody.

John Ernst is a passionate writer, hiker, and gamer born and raised in Rochester. He is currently developing his website, nerdofearth.com.

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