Wi-fi to Wii

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

When the personal computer hit the market in the 1980s, many of today's older adults were already well-ensconced in their careers. Unless they worked in a tech-centered profession, they likely didn't have daily contact with computers or an opportunity to learn to operate these machines.

Since those days of DOS-based PCs, the technology gap has grown ever wider-from compact discs to netbooks to iPods and everything in between. But many older adults, not content to simply smile and nod when their grandchildren speak of MP3s, texting and webcams, have stepped up and claimed the technology for themselves.

And why not? Many of today's seniors have the time to use the technology as well as the resources to obtain it. With increasing frequency, older Americans are getting on the information superhighway and Wii-boxing their way to physical fitness.

Many Central Ohio senior living communities are seeing an increasing demand for technology from residents. First Community Village has responded with a business center, wi-fi and even videogames.

"We have a Wii bowling league that meets in our assisted living area," says spokeswoman Becky Converse. "We have wireless capabilities in our health-care center for our short-term rehab folks, and of course we also have Internet availability and wireless capability for residents in the Chelsea." The latter is an area of new apartments and manor homes.

Residents who don't have PCs in their units can stop by the business center to access computers, the Internet, a fax machine, copier and postage meter.

Videoconferencing also is catching on as a way to stay in touch with friends and family. "Residents are using Skype independently, and I've heard them talk quite a bit about it," Converse says.

Wii and Wireless

Wesley Glen Retirement Community also has jumped on the tech bandwagon. "We use the Wii a lot," says Charles Leader, the center's director of information technology. "We saw it here almost as soon as it came out, because we have so many young students volunteering here. As soon as we saw it, we recognized its potential, and now you can hardly walk down a hall here without seeing something along those lines."

Wesley Glen has a dedicated Wii room, but the unit also travels from place to place to help build residents' physical fitness and emotional wellness. Leader says users not only get their hearts pounding with the Wii Fit exercise system, but also end up smiling, laughing and building friendships and memories.

For non-gamers, Wesley Glen has wireless Internet access in almost every corner of the community, from its eight-story main building to the lobby to independent living cottages at the rear of the property.

The popularity of wireless was initially a surprise. "In 2008, we installed wi-fi in the skilled care facility," Leader says. "We were providing Internet access for nurses, and the priority was resident care. But all of a sudden, the IT department began getting calls to repair residents' wireless connections."

IT officials didn't realize that residents were piggybacking on the connection, but found that more than 25 percent of the 40 people in the unit were using the Internet for at least several hours a day.

Wesley Glen has since expanded the signal to cover almost the entire campus, and usage continues to grow. Leader says most residents use the Internet for sending and receiving e-mail, visiting art museums online, viewing religious services and sermons, and shopping. "People found out they can do all of their holiday shopping in one place, right there in their homes," he says.

Many residents have computers in their apartments or cottages, but Wesley Glen provides six machines with Internet connectivity for resident and family use in public areas. "Those are in constant use," Leader says. "We have people who log on at 2 or 3 in the morning."

Help is available for computer novices and users trying to master new software. "We offer assistance to any resident, either those who have never been on the Internet or those who want to refine their skills," Leader says. "We meet with them and provide training, and pretty soon they realize it isn't as difficult as they thought."

Improving Care

Trillium Place is another community where wireless is a big part of daily life. There's already a Wii bowling league, and the facility is in the process of switching to an all-encompassing wireless system that will make communication easier for residents and allow the staff to provide more responsive care, says executive director Debbie Cassel. All apartments are being equipped with expanded nurse call systems, and residents can also obtain wireless medical alert necklaces.

Trillium Place also installed a new communications system that combines telephone service with wireless Internet access for the entire facility. Now, they can get a lower price, with the added benefit of a special customer service number.

"The people we have contracted with are trained to work with the elderly and understand the anxiety level people may experience when something changes," Cassel says. "They are very customer-service oriented, and residents are able to dial *123 and get a live person to help them."

Cassel says the service will be available 24 hours a day and will save people the trouble of dialing through a computerized phone system when they may already be frustrated with technological problems, or suffer from hearing loss.

Trillium Place is operated by Brookdale Living Communities; Cassel says the company, which is the largest senior housing provider in the country, has installed the communications system in many facilities with great success. "We're looking ahead at who's getting older, and we see that these are the sorts of amenities people are going to want to have in their lives," Cassel says.

Getting Engaged

Technology is a way of life, learning and healing at Westminster-Thurber Community. "We embrace it and recognize that our residents want to be lifelong learners and try new things," says director of marketing Joel Wrobbel.

While many residents have their own computers, the facility also has a 24-hour computer lab with six machines, each connected to the Internet and printers. A resident-driven technology committee stays abreast of new developments, makes purchasing suggestions and provides tutoring and speakers throughout the year.

Lowell Mast and his wife, Ruth, live in Thurber Tower and rely on technology to stay in touch with family in Columbus as well as Arizona, Minnesota and on the East Coast. "It's our main means of communication," he says. "We get several e-mails a week from our son, and prior to using the computer, we got very little snail mail. The computer allows people to keep in touch with one another very easily."

The Masts have owned a computer for 20 years, and use it to do research, compile mailing lists, pay bills and even entertain themselves with late-night card games when they can't sleep. The tech-enthusiasts also enjoy weekly Wii bowling games with neighborhood friends. The Masts and a half-dozen others play for three or four hours every Wednesday morning.

The videogame system is currently located in a heavily scheduled auditorium, but players would like to see a dedicated Wii lounge with a big-screen TV and all-day, everyday access so more people could get involved. "Some people are a little hesitant at first, almost like they're scared to try it," Mast says. "But once they do, they get hooked and are more than willing to do it again."

Mast says the Wii's biggest benefit is the social contact it provides. He says it's also a great morale booster for people with limited mobility. "We have two members who are seated and bowl every week, and do a very nice job," he says.

Mind Over Matter

Westminster-Thurber is also using the Dakim BrainFitness system, developed by scientist Dan Michel as a weapon against his father's progressing Alzheimer's disease. Developers say the product stimulates users' cognitive domains and has been proven to increase mental acuity.

"We believe that computers can help people maintain brain fitness," Wrobbel says. "Each day, the machine has a new set of challenges, and residents are encouraged to use it as often as they can."

Users create a profile and the software tracks their progress. An intuitive touch screen is used in lieu of a computer mouse, so the system can be used even by those with less-than-perfect dexterity.

Westminster-Thurber also uses the IN2L, short for "It's Never Too Late." The touch-screen computer center on wheels can lead users in a round of trivia or "Remember When," let them complete a jigsaw puzzle, serve as a jukebox and act as a game-show host for group activities. "The machine has wi-fi, so it's always updating itself. And for residents who have limited mobility, we can push it right into the health center or to their rooms for them to use," Wrobbel says.

The machine even has wireless bicycle pedals that can be placed on the floor in front of a comfy chair. "As they pedal, on-screen they can be bicycling through the redwood forests of California, along the Jersey shore or on an old country road," Wrobbel says. "Not only are they getting exercise, but you can sit with them and have the most amazing conversations."

For example, a big red barn alongside the virtual road may jog a memory of youth on an Ohio farm. "Before you know it, they've been pedaling for 20 minutes and improving their cardiovascular health, and you've been able to share a special story with them," Wrobbel says.

Technology can be your companion on a virtual bike, or on a Semester at Sea, as Westminster-Thurber resident Ruby Koerper found when she participated in five journeys and made three circuits around the globe. Koerper bought a laptop so she could type letters home and mail them when the ship pulled into port.

More recently, Koerper has used the Internet to launch a publishing career. "I published my memoirs in 2009 and have five children's books that will be released in July, and all of that was done through e-mail," she says. "I don't mean that we never talked to each other, but probably 95 percent of the editing and communication was done through the computer."

Koerper developed her computer skills during her 25-year career as a real estate agent-a career she began at age 60. These days, she uses the Internet to stay current on continuing education requirements to maintain her broker's license.

She also uses technology to keep in touch with her three children and friends from her travels and careers. Koerper ditched her landline years ago in favor of a cell phone, and posts regular updates on her Web page, Facebook and Twitter.

Tech Boom

As Koerper, the Masts and others have proven, baby boomers and older seniors are getting more comfortable with technology every day.

A recent AARP survey found that 40 percent of adults over age 50 consider themselves comfortable or very comfortable using the Internet-57 percent of them via a desktop computer and 26 percent with a laptop. About 27 percent of adults 50 and older use social media such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, yet only about 4 percent use cell phones.

Kathy Keller, AARP's associate state director for communications, says seniors are using technology to learn more about issues such as wellness and well-being. With topics ranging from brain health to important legislation to love and sex, the AARP website has tried to tap that interest.

"AARP is witnessing huge growth in members visiting our web pages, including an ever-increasing number of new members who join and renew online," Keller says. "We know that staying sharp is among the greatest interests of our members, and thus the sudoku and other games on our page are very popular."

Keller says members also gather information about eating healthy and staying well. The site's recipe archive is a popular feature, as are the message boards. "Our members love to share photos and brief messages with family and friends, and this has carried onto the community pages of our website, where there are lots of photos of pets as well," she says.

Just as it has over the last quarter-century, the use of technology will only continue to grow. "We want people to embrace life and live each day with purpose and meaning," says Wrobbel. Whether that means reaching out in person or over the Internet, calling a friend or engaging in a rousing game of Mario Kart, Columbus-area seniors are ready for it.

Kristin Campbell is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the December 2010 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.