The Dollar Store Aging Simulation

Every semester, our team at Generation Connect collaborates with Dr. Mary Ligon and her gerontology students to teach local seniors how to use smartphones and tablets. Prior to pairing up with seniors for the 8-week course, the students go through a two day sensitivity training. This spring, we trained our fourth group of students.

This program has not only been a great learning experience for the students and elders, but it has also been incredibly enlightening for those of us organizing the program.  We learned that when you use the technology to focus on the person, sincere connections develop and learning occurs naturally.

Here is how we prepare students to be successful:


Helping Students Understand Their Priorities as Tech Mentors

Priority #1 = Establish an Emotional Connection

We explain that making a personal connection is most important and prepare for a group icebreaker. Students save a digital photo of a person, place or thing that’s personally meaningful.

I ask volunteers to share their photo and a story with the group. If their prepared icebreakers are too generic, I challenge them to be more specific or personal. I try to provide lots of examples to help them brainstorm how to share their stories.

During the first session, they will share the photo with their partner, and in return, ask the seniors to share about a person, place or thing that is important to them.

Priority #2 - Introducing Smartphone & Tablet Capabilities

The Senior Center provides iPads for participants during training; many do not own their own smartphone or tablet. For new learners, the priority is not teaching them how to use the community iPads, rather it’s showing them what’s possible. Many older adults are not aware of modern capabilities. By tailoring examples and practice activities to the senior and their interests, students can change the way their partners perceive technology.

Priority #3 - Demonstrating Practical Uses

Some of the participants already own a smartphone and/or a tablet. They are familiar with the basics and often eager to learn more. We encourage students to help them explore practical uses based on their partner’s needs.


Speaking with Digital Immigrants

The people that participate in training at the White Rose Senior Center are digital immigrants - they were born well before the widespread use of digital technology. The students are digital natives - they have been using technology their entire lives. 

The second language analogy is helpful. If a person learns a second language later in life, it’s challenging. For many of the seniors, learning to use technology is like learning a second language. We developed a few suggestions to help the students introducing technology to a new learner.

Ask Questions

Ask your partner questions to gauge their understanding of concepts like Wi-Fi, the Internet, Google, etc.

Use Analogies

If a person does not have any frame of reference, understanding an abstract concept like the world wide web is tough. Analogies can be incredibly useful. For example, “the web is an online library with millions and millions of articles, which are like the books in the library.”

Provide Examples

Abstract concepts are easier to understand if they are explained through practical examples. For example, “you can use the web to search for information like the score of a baseball game or the weather.”

I ask for volunteers to explain concepts like Wi-Fi, Facebook, Google, etc, as if they were introducing the terms to a group of new learners. This usually becomes a group effort, and we come up with some creative and useful ideas for introducing popular technology terminology.


Verbal Coaching for New Learners

Finally, the students practice verbally coaching a new learner, making sure to adjust their pace and volume accordingly.  We encourage them to avoid touching their partner’s tablet, if possible. 

Volunteers coach me through tasks on my tablet, such as looking up the weather or taking a selfie. I intentionally make the mistakes and ask the questions of new learners.

During a recent training, the internet was slow and I asked a student, “what’s taking so long?”. He responded, “the page is loading”. To which I immediately asked, “what’s loading?”. He started at me like a deer in headlights, and the class broke out in laughter. 


The Dollar Store Aging Simulation

On the second day of student training, we do an aging simulation. Physical challenges are natural part of aging, and this activity is designed to help the students understand specific limitations.

We review the prevalence of aging related physical challenges, and how the simulation gear is designed to help students experience certain challenges.

Vision Impairment: Sunglasses with Chapstick and Stickers

When compared to Americans 18 to 44 years of age, Americans 75 years of age and over were nearly three times as likely to report vision loss. The stickers on the glasses mimic vision loss, while the chapstick blurs vision.

Hearing Impairment: Headphones with White Noise

Nearly 25 percent of those aged 65 to 74 and 50 percent of those who are 75 and older have disabling hearing loss. We downloaded an app that plays white noise in the background. We turn up the volume and give students a pair of over-ear headphone, so they have difficulty hearing.

Limited Hand Function

Hand function naturally decreases with age in both men and women, and is made worse by conditions such as arthritis. Of persons ages 65 or older, 49.7% reported doctor-diagnosed arthritis. We prompt students to tape their fingers together and use their opposite hand to mimic touch challenges.

The students organize into small groups. Each group has one coach and one person in the aging gear. They work together to complete a mystery prompt.

With the help of their partners, students were given prompts to complete while wearing the aging simulation equipment.

With the help of their partners, students were given prompts to complete while wearing the aging simulation equipment.

The group rotates so that every person has a chance to experience the aging gear. Many students have very realistic experiences - having difficulties tapping the screen or understanding the coach. Many experience the frustration of seniors that face similar challenges.

Even though it may seem like common sense, it’s easy to overlook physical challenges. The aging simulation definitely makes student mentors more conscious and understanding!

Generation Connect designs training programs to enrich the lives of older adults through smartphones and tablets.