Seniors build bonds with tutors while learning to use computers

March 1, 2012

At 87 years old, Claire Hoepfl figures she still has time left to learn a new thing or two. That's why when the opportunity arose for her to learn how to use a personal computer, Hoepfl jumped at the chance.

Well, maybe not jumped.

"I was really interested in learning how to use one," said Hoepfl. "It's taken me about six months to get the hang of it, but now I can email my nieces and nephews and look things up on the Internet. It's really been great."

Hoepfl is one of a handful of residents at The Summit, assisted living apartments at Villa St. Vincent in Crookston, Minn., to receive computer skills training through a partnership with the University of

Minnesota-Crookston. Villa St. Vincent is part of the Benedictine Health System of Duluth, Minn.

Two years ago, Villa St. Vincent and the university received a Caring Communities Program Grant from the Northwest Minnesota Foundation for $5,000, much of which went to the purchase of a computer system specifically designed with seniors in mind called IN2L, for It's Never 2 Late. In addition to the IN2L computer, the foundation donated three computers to The Summit. The focus of the joint program is twofold: University student volunteers from the Students in Free Enterprise club assist residents of The Summit with learning how to use computers. And that interaction enhances multigenerational relationships.

Kathy Hanson, activity coordinator for The Summit, says residents who have taken advantage of the program are amazed with what computers can do. What's even more inspiring, she says, are the friendships the older residents and younger students have forged.

"They truly enjoy each other's company," says Hanson. "I hear laughter coming from the room where they are working. In fact, once our residents learn to email, some of the first ones they send are to the students."

During the academic year, two to four students work with The Summit's residents about once a week. Hanson says about eight of The Summit's 56 residents have participated in the program since it began.

"I wish the number was higher," she says. "But some already have computers in their rooms, and they feel they know enough for what they need. Others say they are just too old to learn or that their eyesight isn't good enough. So the ones who take advantage of it truly want to be there and enjoy the learning and friendship experience."

Seventy-two-year-old Dale Myerchin is among that group. He's been working with the students for about eight months and now knows how to look up new cooking appliances and gadgets. Cooking is one of his hobbies.

"I have a sister who emails me often from Austin, Texas," says Myerchin, explaining that he had once taken a class at the local community college to learn computer skills. "This (program) is much better because of the one-on-one attention. Plus, I made a nice friend with a student who comes from Korea, I think."

Yangchen Gurung, a junior at the university, has been teaching residents basic computer skills since the program's inception. She is friendly with Hoepfl and Myerchin as well as other residents who seem as interested in learning about Gurung's native Nepal as they are in how to email.

"There are a lot of international students involved in SIFE (the student entrepreneurs' club) who get to practice their English through computer tutoring," says Gurung, 21, a business management major with a minor in communications. "The residents are eager to help us perfect our language skills and are very curious about our homelands so it's nice to talk to them about it. They also have told me more about Crookston and how it has changed and become much more diverse."

Gurung says that at first, some of the residents are reticent to learn. "Most say, 'This machine is too complicated for me.' It does take time for them to grasp how it works, and we often have to show them how to do something, like email, over and over because they are not so confident. But after a while, they do get the hang of it."

Gurung has even had success showing some residents how to use Skype, a web-based video chat service. "We have one resident whose daughter moved to Idaho after living in Minnesota for most of her life so now the two Skype every week," says Hanson. "He gets so excited on 'Skype day.' He's a quiet person but he gets so much more talkative because he so looks forward to when he can Skype."

Lisa Loegering, assistant director of service learning at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, says computer tutoring is among the most successful programs launched over the years between the school and The Summit. "A lot of times, even after the classes end, a number of the students continue to visit the residents," she says. "It's really a win-win situation because the students help the residents to learn the computer while the residents help the students feel more connected to their community."


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.