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Get Tech Savvy with AARP Digital Skills Classes

Ray Sullivan, 72, of Charlotte, recently completed a five-week Computer Essentials class taught by AARP volunteers. It helped him become familiar with the keyboard, screen and apps, such as Microsoft Word and Chrome; now he and his wife have their first laptop and home internet service.
Photo: Justin Cook

Ray Sullivan, 72, of Charlotte, acknowledges he’s always been a few steps behind when it comes to technology. He was still using his 1993 flip phone until a few years ago, when his daughter’s nudging persuaded him to switch.

“Daddy, you need to get up on board with ... these phones,” he recalls her telling him. “In the next 15 or 20 years, you’re going to be totally lost, because this is the way the world is going.”

Sullivan didn’t want to be lost, so he traded in the flip phone for a smartphone.

Now, with the help of AARP North Carolina, Sullivan is conquering his next tech challenge: using a computer. He and his wife, Fran Johnson Sullivan, 67, recently got their first laptop and home internet service.

It came after they took a five-week Computer Essentials class taught by AARP volunteers in Charlotte. The class was part of a free initiative AARP created in 2023 in collaboration with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Senior Planet and the Center for Digital Equity at Queens University of Charlotte. Senior Planet is the flagship technology training program offered by Older Adults Technology Services from AARP.

The North Carolina program, called “Digital Literacy Charlotte: Tech Titans 50+,” aims to help older adults become more comfortable with today’s technology. More than 200 people have participated so far.

In addition to the basic computer class, the AARP initiative has offered a five-week “iPad Essentials” course and a 10-week program called “Money Matters,” which included using online resources to access movies and music, search for flights and hotels, and earn extra income.

AARP North Carolina is now planning to expand the program to other parts of the state, says Rebecca Gilbert, associate state director of advocacy and outreach for the organization.

She says digital literacy is vital for older adults because it can help combat social isolation and because so much of daily life is now conducted online—from accessing government services to communicating with a health care provider to connecting with far away friends.

“We want to empower [older adults] to do things themselves and not have to rely on their grandchildren or children to access what they need,” Gilbert says.

She says during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, many Charlotte-area AARP members received free laptops through a library program. But a lot of people “kept them in the box because they didn’t know how to use them,” she says. Learning how to use computers and find information online helps people “live their best lives.”

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Chart by Nicolas Rapp

Peer-to-peer learning

Sullivan says the AARP class helped him get familiar with the keyboard, screen and various applications, such as Microsoft Word and Chrome. He enjoys using the computer to read the news, follow his children on Facebook and search the internet. It’s even better than his smartphone.

“When you look things up on the computer, you see the wide scope of things. It’s easier to access,” he says.

AARP volunteers Patricia Battle, 64, and Roger Pierce, 70, help teach the digital literacy sessions. Battle says she thinks one reason the classes have been successful is that older adults are the teachers.

“It’s the pace [of the class] … It’s associations” that the teachers can make and the participants can identify with, she says, adding that those small things can help make participants feel more comfortable.

Battle says one 84-year-old woman who took her class had never even touched a computer before. At the end of the five-week course, she was “super-duper excited” about going online to find recipes, search for places to visit with her grandkids and communicate with her doctors through MyChart, Battle says.

The octogenarian had gained independence and freedom to do new things, she says. “Just [her] joy … I mean, it made me cry,” Battle says.

Michelle Crouch is a North Carolina- based journalist who covers health care and consumer issues. She has written for the Bulletin for 10 years.

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