Rita Hodges had a fear of social media. She was concerned about her identity being compromised and didn't feel comfortable getting on Facebook or any other social media platform.

That was before. Now, after a six-week course in which she learned more about technology, the 73-year-old has opened a Facebook account and is connecting with family and friends and enjoying every minute of it.

"I learned to get over my fear of the social connections, you know, that maybe I would compromise my identity or something," she said. "There are safeguards, and then when you begin late at night to hear from people in Florida and Canada that are in your family, but you've not heard from them, it's an uplifting experience, it really is."

Ms. Hodges is among 20 senior citizens at The Hamptons Independent Living community in Tyler who have spent about 24 hours over the past six weeks learning how to use iPads and social media programs and set up email accounts.

The program is part of a partnership between The University of Texas at Tyler and The Hamptons.

Dr. Julie Delello and Dr. Rochell McWhorter, both assistant professors at UT Tyler, have been the instructors. UT Tyler students have provided one-on-one instruction to the residents as well.

The program was designed to help develop technology literacy in senior citizens.

"One thing that we've done is we try to find things that will help them connect to their community," said Dr. Delello, UT Tyler assistant professor of education.

Research shows that technology can help reduce loneliness, particularly for senior citizens living in retirement centers or other similar locations.

"They have so many things to give back to the community," Dr. Delello said. "And so by reducing their loneliness, connecting them to the community, we're giving back, but they're also able to give back."

The technology training was the first step in the process. Starting this fall, UT Tyler is looking to launch a book buddy program with local elementary school classrooms. In this program, a senior citizen who has been trained in the technology is paired with a child to improve the child's literacy.

The students, in this case second-graders from local elementary schools, will read a book to the seniors remotely using a video conferencing program.

The hope is that the senior will become a mentor to that student and help them improve their reading skills.

Another part of the program involves creating digital memoirs for senior citizens who want them. There are 13 World War II veterans at The Hamptons Independent Living community, and those veterans have stories to tell, Dr. Delello said.

In addition, there are Korean War veterans, authors, painters and more.

"We have just a huge wealth of knowledge here," she said. "These people are brilliant and we don't want to keep that bottled up in captivity. We want them to be able to share their stories."

Nancy Johnson, The Hamptons Independent Living community director, said it was exciting to see this program come together. She had thought for a while that helping senior citizens become more technologically savvy would be a good thing, but she hadn't worked out how to bring in the training and equipment.

That's when Dr. McWhorter at UT Tyler contacted her with the idea and said they had the equipment and the resources to make it happen.

Together, the UT Tyler faculty and Ms. Johnson created a class schedule and launched the two-hour, twice weekly classes.

"I'm hoping it'll create an ongoing program that we'll be able to have hopefully indefinitely for the residents," Ms. Johnson said.

During a recent session, the participants had the opportunity to practice what they have been learning and ask questions. Some read books on their iPads. Others scrolled through Facebook pages or Pinterest, where people display digital images of topics that interest them. Still others looked at personal photos they had taken using their iPad.

Anne Cooper, 80, a former teacher and administrator, said she learned how to check out books from the library on her iPad and has enjoyed creating "boards" on Pinterest about her favorite things such as travels in Venice and Italian food.

Ms. Hodges, a former French professor, said she's been able to connect with family and friends and uses the iPad to listen to French newscasts each day.

"It's pretty wonderful," she said. "I was very much afraid of (social media), but I learned here to lose that fear and just use it right."

She said her family is thrilled with her newfound social media presence. During a recent visit, her children helped set up Facebook on her personal computer, something she previously had not let them do.

"They are just thrilled that they can follow what I'm doing, that they can hear from me instantly," she said. "And then all of these Pinterest things are coming in. I'm kind of overwhelmed, but it's wonderful."

Virginia Browning, 86, a former junior high school math teacher, said through this training she has been able to open a Facebook account and improve her connection with family and friends and better keep up with what's going on in their lives.

In addition, she said, she plays games such as solitaire and Sudoku and is exploring Pinterest as well.

"I just can't believe that The University of Texas (at Tyler) would do this for us," she said. "To come over here to The Hamptons and stay for two hours twice a week has just been wonderful. So, I hope they can keep doing it."

Dr. Delello said they plan to offer the same class in the fall and spring in addition to providing the opportunities for book buddies and creating digital memoirs.

She said they recently partnered with the Tyler Area Partners for Literacy, which is a coalition of community partners that seek to advocate, promote and support literacy among people of all ages. This partnership will provide access to additional resources and support. 

She said the university is looking for funding opportunities to provide a set of iPads to retirement centers like The Hamptons. Then residents would be able to check them out and use them.

Ms. Johnson said her hope is that the residents who are trained in the technology will help their neighbors and encourage them in the use of it.

Dr. Delello said that already has happened with this first class, in which the oldest participant was 97 years old and the youngest was 62 years old.

"We're all learning together," Dr. Delello said. "It doesn't matter what age you are, you're still able to learn and by having this community setting, it's really strengthening our training because they're helping one another."


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