Folsom/El Dorado News

The latest in online trends for the elderly? Social media coaches

Jim Patterson needed help. His granddaughter had tagged him in a photo of the two of them that she posted on his Facebook account, and he didn’t know what to do. So the 92-year-old retired carpenter, who lives in a Placerville retirement community, checked in with a social networking coach.

“If you’ll just scroll down,” said Blair Gregorvich, a Visiting Angels caregiver who has given computer skills classes to older adults in El Dorado County. “Now click on ‘Write a comment,’ and we’ll add one.”

“I never put any comments in, because I forget how to work it,” said Patterson.

Patterson was seated at the desktop computer in the corner of his living room, with Gregorvich peering over his shoulder while he typed in a few words.

“Now hit ‘Enter,’ ” said Gregorvich.

“That’s what I forget all the time,” said Patterson.

A growing list of the region’s seniors centers and church groups offer computer classes so older adults can learn to log on to the Internet, set up email accounts, research genealogy and even sign up for Facebook or use Skype to converse with faraway relatives. But what happens when seniors go home and sit down in front of their own computers, alone?

As social media use increases, so does the use of one-on-one coaching, often by caregivers whose jobs include daily or weekly in-home assistance for the elderly. On an informal basis, caregivers and family members alike have long helped program seniors’ cellphones and coaxed them through basic computer usage. More formal private social media coaching was a logical next step.

“We want people to use their computers to connect with their family more,” said Kathy Hatten, a spokeswoman for the Cameron Park office of Visiting Angels, a nationwide senior care company that’s ramping up its “Silver Surfer” social media coaching program.

“But much of the time, that’s too hard for them to do on their own. They need us to help them.”

People 85 and older remain slow to enter the digital age, with less than 50 percent of seniors in that age group saying they use the Internet, according to Pew Research Internet Project data released in April. Only 27 percent of older adults use social networking sites such as Facebook to remain connected to family and friends, but that percentage is gradually increasing.

Experts know that staying in touch, even long distance through social media outlets, can help seniors overcome isolation and depression and help them continue aging in their own homes.

“Technology can be messy for them to learn,” Hatten said, “but it’s great for them. It can drive them nuts, but they need it.”

In many ways, Jim Patterson was an early adopter. He bought his first computer back in the 1990s for word processing, so he could type up reunion invitations for his World War II shipmates aboard the USS Stack. As time progressed, he used the Internet mostly to send the occasional email and spent the rest of his time on the computer playing games. But he prefers spending time in the garage, where his woodworking shop is set up.

Before Maxine, his wife of almost 70 years, died a few days before Christmas last year, a Visiting Angels caregiver helped him set up a Facebook account to keep far-flung relatives and friends notified. The caregiver also encouraged him to Skype with one of Maxine’s cousins in Norway.

Now he has 52 friends on Facebook, mostly relatives, friends from the couple’s half-century living in Southern California and people they knew growing up together in North Dakota.

Patterson checks his Facebook page only from time to time, so he’s a little rusty with his skills. Even so, he knows how to deal with friend requests.

“The ones that come from people I don’t know, I just ignore them,” he said.