A nonprofit program that teaches seniors technology skills in a WeWork-like setting is plotting its next steps for growth, and is looking for senior living providers to be part of the process.
Nonprofit senior advocacy group Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) launched its first Senior Planet class seven years ago in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Today, Senior Planet has expanded to six locations across the country, mostly in suburban and rural markets. It also recently opened a second major market location in Denver and is considering a host of partnerships and other markets to expand its reach, OATS Executive Director Dr. Thomas Kamber told Senior Housing News.
To facilitate that outreach, Senior Planet recently hired former Masterpiece Living COO Khristine Rogers as state director in Colorado, and her background in a provider setting can widen the program’s reach. Masterpiece Living works with senior housing providers across the country, helping them with a variety of operational initiatives in wellness, marketing and other domains.
Senior Planet has also evolved over the years from a tech-focused program to one that gives its students tools to reclaim their agency over how they age. It’s a mission that aligns with senior living providers that increasingly want to engage residents and enable them to live with a greater sense of purpose.
“There is an incredible mismatch between what [seniors] know they’re capable of doing and what they experience when they go out in the world,” Kamber said.
A shift to advocacy
Kamber founded OATS with the help of volunteers in 2004. The organization’s original mission was to close the digital divide for seniors. According to analysis from Pew Research Center in May 2018, 92% of millennials use smartphones, compared to 67% of baby boomers and 30% of the silent generation. Eighty-five percent of millennials use social media, compared to 57% of baby boomers.
“We were picking up on the gap everyone was observing, and in some ways still exist, between adoption rates on mainstream tech by older people, compared to the younger population,” he said.
Senior Planet’s programming is based on a simple premise: Seniors are bombarded with ageist stereotypes, but are actually capable of infinite productivity, creativity and impact.
The program’s exploration centers set the tone and draw plenty of inspiration from coworking spaces such as WeWork, Spaces by Regis and MakeOffices. The centers are bright, open spaces with communal tables that encourage conversation and interaction, yet without distracting amenities common in coworking spaces. This is something Kamber believes is too rare in the prevailing coworking models.
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Senior Planet members have gone on to teach others what they’ve learned, start businesses and launch advocacy campaigns for other seniors to become tech savvy.
Courses range across a variety of subjects, from learning the basics of how to operate a computer, laptop or smart device; using tech to improve one’s fitness levels through exercise plans and monitoring food intake; using a computer or tablet to take virtual adult education courses and virtual museum tours; identifying online scams; and writing updated, age-proof resumes and cover letters using Google Docs and other online programs.
OATS designed the Senior Planet instructional methodology in collaboration with seniors, using “design thinking” techniques — developing programs and services with a customer orientation and looking at different ways to deliver the programs.
Senior Planet is not the first wide-ranging program to teach seniors basic tech skills, but Kamber believes it stands above other initiatives because it recruits and pays for better talent. Most trainers host classes six hours a day, four days a week, 40 weeks a year. Some have taught between 2,500 and 3,000 classes since they started.
OATS keeps Senior Planet classes small and personal. Students face each other during classes, have access to the latest tech gear, and trainers use group activity methods wherever possible, challenging people to solve problems because adult learning methodology suggests people learn better when they’re given concrete problems to solve, using the existing and accumulated knowledge they’ve acquired.
“Older people want you to spark a conversation and feed them relevant information and tools as they are solving the problem,” Kamber said.
The ability of trainers to connect with students may be the most important element to Senior Planet’s success, Kamber told SHN. OATS prioritizes recruiting trainers who have an ability to empathize with how seniors approach learning about technology over experts such as computer programmers and engineers. It screens for people who are magnetic in front of a classroom.
“They have a lot of empathy and warmth, and are able to understand intuitively how to speak to someone that is effective but does not condescend or infantilize,” Kamber said.
OATS puts Senior Planet instructors through rigorous training and evaluates their effectiveness to determine their ability to connect with students. The students, meanwhile, are measured on five impact areas: social engagement; health and wellness; financial security; advocacy; and creativity.
This is deliberate, Kamber said. Senior Planet emphasizes the ability for technology to allow seniors to leverage technology to age with dignity and give them a “third stage” of life. Some Senior Planet graduates have used what they learned to become community advocates, start new businesses and tap into creative talents.
The ultimate goal here is engagement with the outside world and using technology to create better lives for themselves. The impact areas serve as more lasting quantifiable measurements than a senior’s ability to attach a file to an email or properly conduct a search on Google.
He believes Senior Planet’s services will become more important as baby boomers age into senior living over the next decade. An April study from Pew Research Center revealed that 10% of Americans do not use the internet. Of that number, 27% are age 65 and up.
Senior Planet is already picking up a significant number of boomers in its courses.
“The tech options for boomers are a moving target,” Kamber said.
Next stage growth
Senior Planet has grown considerably in the past five years, and Kamber believes the platform would be ideal for larger senior living providers seeking to bridge the technology gap. For example, a library or computer room inside a senior housing community could be repurposed into a Senior Planet center, outfitted with fully operational equipment and internet access, and staffed by an OATS instructor, separate from the provider’s operational structure.
Senior Planet’s growth to date has been in secondary and rural markets, and OATS has partnerships with senior centers and smaller communities in those markets. Kamber is confident the Senior Planet model can benefit national and regional providers, and that the program is built to scale.
OATS has had discussions with national and regional operators, but the issue that has not been overcome so far is one of money.
“Our challenge with providers is their margins are small, and any competitive advantage they commit to needs to be concise,” he said.
To that end, OATS hired former Masterpiece Living COO and Senior Innovation Advisor Khristine Rogers as state director of Senior Planet Colorado, and OATS is planning an aggressive expansion into the Colorado market. Kamber believes Rogers’ experience in an operator setting can bring progressive-minded providers into the fold, allowing a rapid scaling of Senior Planet’s platform.
OATS is also revamping its online presence, in order to create a global network of members. Kamber hopes to have 200,000 Senior Planet members in the next three years.
The work so far is promising. OATS has diversified its funding over the years from nearly 80% federal, state and local grants to a 50-50 mix of corporate funding and government grants and corporate/philanthropic sources. Senior Planet New York also recently received primary funding through T-Mobile CEO John Legere, and OATS is entering into affinity relationships with health insurance, telecom and financial companies to produce content geared toward a senior audience.
These initiatives highlight what Kamber believes is the intersection of tech and social engagement he sees Senior Planet occupying.
“Senior Planet is not about the tech, but the conversations and opportunities that arise when someone asks a tech question as a starting point,” he said. “We’re also a social change organization — we’re activists.”