iPads for Issei, Nintendos for Nisei, and smartphones for Sansei

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National Geographic recently named San Jose’s Japantown, located in Silicon Valley, one of the top 26 friendliest neighborhoods in the country. But within and surrounding this welcoming community many older adults are still socially isolated. 

In fact, according to the AARP Foundation, one in five Americans 65 and older are socially isolated, which means “this public health epidemic affects more than eight million 50-plus adults and is growing as 10,000 Americans a day turn 65.” Additionally, research has shown that prolonged social isolation is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is more harmful than obesity.

All of this sounds bleak, until you hear about the ground-breaking work at two Silicon Valley older adult community centers that are using technology to prevent social isolation. Nestled in San Jose’s Japantown, Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service celebrated their 45th anniversary last year and has been offering iPad classes since 2013 at their Akiyama Wellness Center.

photo by Jess Hutchins

Through a grant from AT&T a year ago, YAK has been able to expand their digital literacy offerings to help with demand, as their iPad classes usually have a waiting list. YAK Senior Club Members are able to check out an iPad like a book from the library with the option to renew to extend their time.

The program includes an “iPad 101” class to enhance, encourage and engage the participants to connect digitally for mental stimulation and more importantly, to connect with one another. If one ever has the privilege to sit in on a class, one can enjoy the sounds of laughter, friends catching up, and substantive lesson plans. The participants even started coordinating a system of rotating who brings snacks to each class. 

USING TECHNOLOGY TO COMBAT ISOLATION — Seniors take courses on smart watches and iPads at Yu-Ai Kai’s Akiyama Wellness Center in San Jose’s Japantown. photo by Jess Hutchins

According to Yu-Ai Kai Executive Director Jennifer Masuda, “We were one of the first older adult community centers in the country to see the importance of teaching our participants how to maximize their experience using the iPads and connecting our older adult participants to the digital world.”

Across Santa Clara County in Downtown Palo Alto, Avenidas partnered with Older Adults Technology Services a year ago to launch Senior Planet @Avenidas, which offers an award-winning curriculum to older adults.

They too have been experiencing class waiting lists, and in their first year of operation, they have hosted programming for more than 2,000 participants.

In total, OATS has taught more than 30,000 technology classes to people over the age of 60 across the country, with Senior Planet sites in San Antonio, Texas; Colorado; Plattsburg, New York; Montgomery County, Maryland; Florida; and New York City.

Since COVID-19 forced senior centers to close in mid-March, Senior Planet sites have provided online technology, wellness, and social programming to nearly 40,000 participants nationwide; Senior Planet @Avenidas in Palo Alto served more than 1,000 participants through online programming just in the past three months. In the process, OATS has learned important lessons about how to effectively address social isolation.

Outfitted with the latest state-of-the-art technology, Senior Planet @Avenidas was offering digital skill-building classes onsite throughout the week, accented by free discussion groups, technology tutoring sessions, and workshops offered on a weekly basis, but is now offering all of this same programming online via Zoom. Imagine the pure joy when one older adult participant learned how to use the “eye roll” emoji and was exposed to using the full world of sarcasm via text messaging, or when a full class of older adult participants learned how to take selfies for the first time.

These programs are critical, as the courses themselves not only offer a space for socialization and laughter, but empower older adults to use technology to connect with loved ones or even start second careers.

Additionally, the programming at Senior Planet @Avenidas is meant to build the confidence of class participants. According to one student who completed a course last summer, “I recently had a tech-related problem, and rather than going to the Apple Store to get help like I normally would, I tinkered with my iPad on my own and fixed the problem! I am so proud of this. I feel that in addition to getting exposed to new things in the class, taking the class has also helped me be more confident in my interactions with technology products.” Another student enrolled in a course focused on expanding computer skills, explained, “the Beyond the Basics course has expanded my knowledge and skills in regards to the use of computers. I am now more efficient and have more confidence in using computers.”

Last October, PBS NewsHour covered a fashion show created by New York Senior Planet members who had taken Senior Planet courses on entrepreneurship. The fashion show was broadcasted on YouTube, where Senior Planet locations around the country, including Senior Planet @Avenidas, hosted viewing parties. According to one of the inspiring entrepreneurial members featured during the fashion show, “I’m still perpendicular, I still have my health and I’m just constantly on the go.

Doing, doing, doing … and Senior Planet has become my extended family.”

During the fashion show viewing party at Senior Planet @Avenidas, one attendee whispered to another attendee sitting next to her, “Isn’t it just wonderful that we have a space like this to come to and decompress in the afternoon?” 

OATS was founded on the premise that older adults are a powerful and talented population that is often overlooked, and that when these older adults are included in the world of technology, they can become social change agents, able to advocate for policy change or can continue to sustain themselves through creativity, wellness activities and entrepreneurship.

According to OATS Executive Director Tom Kamber, “social isolation and the digital divide between generations are interconnected social issues.

Older adults are civically engaged, but have been left behind as technology has advanced. They possess limitless potential to develop as individuals, to support their families and communities, and to change the world. Only if we democratize access to social media can older adults effectively use it as a tool for positive change. We must infuse into the political discourse a narrative of older adults as both eager and capable of contributing to the social good.”

During one of the weekly free technology discussion groups at Senior Planet @Avenidas, one participant shared that he had been looking for ways to engage in the community and that these discussion groups had been working for him as a place to socialize and feel connected.

While technology can sometimes get a bad reputation — especially in Silicon Valley, where tech companies have been blamed for a housing crisis and a high cost of living — here, technology is playing a critical role in ending social isolation, flipping what it means to age on its head.

Senior Planet @Avenidas is located at 450 Bryant St. in Downtown Palo Alto. It has been offering free technology programming online via Zoom. For more information, visit their Website at www.seniorplanet.org/locations/palo-alto/. To ask questions or to get further information about Senior Planet @Avenidas, e-mail rsvp@seniorplanetavenidas.org or call (650) 918-5570.

Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service is located at 588 N. 4th St. in in San Jose’s Japantown. Due to COVID-19, iPad classes are being held virtually on Mondays at Yu-Ai Kai’s Akiyama Wellness Center. For more information and the class schedule, visit www.
yuaikai.org
. To ask any questions or to get further information about Yu-Ai Kai, e-mail staff@yuaikai.org or call (408) 294-2505.

Ryan Kawamoto, a Yonsei from Oakland, Calif., is the regional director of Older Adults Technology Services in Palo Alto, Calif. He previously served as the executive director of Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service in San Jose’s Japantown. He can be reached at rkawamoto@oats.org.
Genki Aging is a series of articles and videos on aging in the Japanese American community. It was funded by a generous grant from the JA Community Foundation.

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