Sacramento nonprofit boosts seniors’ computer literacy

Senior Computer School was founded in 1990. “People weren’t accustomed to using computers then like they are now,” said Joe D’Alexander (pictured), the nonprofit’s longtime executive director.
Senior Computer School was founded in 1990. “People weren’t accustomed to using computers then like they are now,” said Joe D’Alexander (pictured), the nonprofit’s longtime executive director. Sacramento Bee file

Even after more than a quarter-century of living in the digital age, many older adults still need instruction on how to use the computers that their grown kids handed down to them or their grandkids insisted they buy. When they sit down at the banks of monitors at Senior Computer School, formerly SeniorNet Sacramento Northeast, they still ask instructors at Senior Computer School how to turn on the machines.

“They want to learn, but they know next to nothing,” said Dan Cordoba, 76, a retired state employee who since 2004 has volunteered with the Carmichael-based computer education program for older adults.

With several hundred students attending its classes each year – and many thousands having gone through its programs since it opened its doors in 1990 – Senior Computer School this year celebrates its 25th anniversary of helping people 55 and older navigate the world of computers.

Back in 1990, when computers were still a rarity among many businesses and most households, a group of forward-thinking educators in the Sacramento suburbs decided older people should learn to use technology.

“People weren’t accustomed to using computers then like they are now,” said Joe D’Alexander, 84, Senior Computer School’s longtime executive director.

Until recent years, the Carmichael program, based in a double-wide classroom on the campus of Rio Americano High School, and the computer training program at Sacramento’s Hart Senior Center were both affiliated with national nonprofit SeniorNet. Now both local groups have established their own nonprofits while continuing to offer a slate of classes that includes computer basics, Excel, Word and Internet training.

Staffed by volunteers, the Senior Computer School program has recently lost instructors to illness and death and, as a result, has cut back on its class offerings.

“As with any other activity, seniors should be involved with computers to the fullest extent they can be,” said Cordoba. “We want seniors to be active and know what’s going on in the world. We feel it’s important for them to use the computer and keep up with what’s going on.”

Some want to go online to check in with the grandchildren through email and on Facebook. And some, Cordoba said, want to learn about spreadsheets so they can keep track of bowling league scores.

They can have problems using the mouse, because of arthritis. They can have problems following class instruction, because they don’t hear or see as well as they once did.

D’Alexander started volunteering as an assistant teacher in 1998, when he was grieving the loss of his wife. Since then, he’s seen hundreds and hundreds of seniors enter the online world through Senior Computer School classes.

“They’re learning they can’t exist in today’s environment without understanding computers,” he said.

Over time, as the computer-literate population slowly grows older, the need for computer classes geared toward seniors stands to diminish. New research already highlights a digital divide among older adults: Aging baby boomers, who are reaching their retirement years after spending the final decades of their careers online, resent being lumped in with the cliche of befuddled elders who can’t handle anything digital.

Even though three-fourths of baby boomers surveyed considered themselves only average technology users, according to research from Internet security company AVG Technologies, more than 40 percent said they felt patronized by tech companies that assumed they were technologically illiterate.

Similarly, a 2014 Pew Research Center study on older adults and technology found that 60 percent of people 65 and older were online, but the younger segment of the senior population clearly skewed the statistics: While 68 percent of people in their early 70s were online, that number dropped to 34 percent among people in their late 70s. Those most likely to be computer savvy were affluent and well-educated, the study found.

Call The Bee’s Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136. Follow her on Twitter @AnitaCreamer.

Where to get help

Senior Computer School, 4540 American River Drive on the Rio Americano High School campus. Classes are offered year-round. Call (916)485-9572 for future class offerings.

TechConnections, Hart Senior Center, 915 27th St. in Sacramento, with satellite sites at the South Natomas Community Center and the Pannell Community Center. Registration for the winter and spring program started Jan. 16. Upcoming classes include computer basics, introduction to Windows 8.1, iPad/iOS basics, introduction to the Internet and introduction to Excel. For more information, call (916) 808-5462.