Riverdale Senior Services looks to close the tech gap for seniors

Expo aims to fight against social isolation, teaches basics on how to use everyday apps and devices


Some older adults in the northwest Bronx have a hard time keeping up with technology as it progresses in our society. In Riverdale Senior Services, they might think a “tablet” is their daily dose of medicine or “swiping” and “tapping” are dance moves.

Maggie Willig, 75 did not know how to turn on an iPad, or how to Google before she took an RSS technology class. Now she can turn on the iPad and shop on Amazon.

It all started a few months ago when Willig was one of more than a dozen older adults started learning how to operate technology at Riverdale Senior Services.

Applications such as the video conferencing application Zoom and the Cloud — remote storage-saving data and files — are familiar to Willig but she has difficulty operating them. She can do simple things to communicate virtually, like text messages or WhatsApp.

Willig has no choice because her daughter lives in Arizona and her son in Texas. Over the phone, her children explain what to click, but it takes time and patience.

Meanwhile, RSS recognize this as a problem. The organization aims to improve older adults’ technology acumen in a world that adapts to newer technology every day.

Applying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or finding vaccination appointments are often done online and some older adults need help navigating the internet. The executive director of the senior service organization, Julia Dalton, said they knew social isolation existed. Nevertheless, Covid-19 heightened it.

Situations like these are called a “digital divide” — unequal access or technological skills, including smartphones and the internet. In 2021, after technology usage increased because of the pandemic, Pew Research Center gathered data for “lower tech readiness” and found that 34 percent of adults ages 50 to 64 are not confident using technology. Also, 54 percent of those 65 to 74 feel the same.

“We were able to get an award from Councilman Eric Dinowitz to address this specific issue and with that, we were able to hire a technology trainer, which was a game changer,” Dalton said.

Through city funds, Dinowitz awarded the organization $10,000 for the fiscal year 2023 for the Digital Inclusion and Literacy Initiative.

Dinowitz’s discretionary funds support programs that provide computer-based training and learning, technical skill development, improved internet access, and the role of a virtual program coordinator position.

Tabitha Rosa has been in that role for the past year and a half. Her technological understanding comes from St. John’s University, having majored in film and television.

“My love for editing went into technology and using the computer all the time,” Rosa said.

Her class is mostly presentations on specific applications on both Android and iPhone. Topics run from Zoom, email and more advanced classes like iCloud and Google Photos.

She has a Galaxy Tablet class where she lends tablets to the participants to follow along.

During the day, she conducts group training and sometimes trains one-on-one. Sometimes she can help teach older adults virtually, or they could even be over the telephone, depending on the person’s level.

The majority of Americans believe their personal data is less secure. The FBI found more than 92,000 over the age of 60 were victims of fraud in 2021, resulting in $1.7 billion in losses, a 74 percent increase from the previous year.

Rosa continues to educate herself as technology increases, and so do issues.

“I learned a bunch about the privacy and settings of each application,” she said. She wants to ensure her class that technology can be fun, although they should remember to be on the lookout for scams and password management.

“Technology keeps on growing, it’s not like you get on a bicycle once you get on it you remember it,” Rosa said. “Whereas technology keeps growing from computers, smartphones, tablets and even artificial intelligence.”

Reenie Hankerson, 66, has always felt a need to keep in touch with technology as it progressed. She was first interested in computers in the 60s. Her uncle worked at IBM as a computer engineer and she can still remember the noisy printers.

While talking to The Riverdale Press on the phone, she “took a look at her phone” to search the internet to explain the different programs the senior service center provides.

“I’m not bad at it,” Hankerson said, with a giggle.

Before the web was introduced in 1989, Hankerson took a computer course at Borough of Manhattan Community College in 1977.

In the 1990s, she learned about various programs. As her daughter grew up, she taught Hankerson how to send emails and use social media.

Although Hankerson and Willing are on different levels, they love YouTube.

“I cannot seem to get away from it,” Hankerson said.

“Oh, I like YouTube — I look for recipes so I can cook,” Willig said.

Rosa told The Press when older adults are told they can watch videos or movies for free, they are “all for it.”

The amount of information astonishes Hankerson as she uses it all day long. If she wants to watch the news in a different state, she can get it on YouTube.

Like Willing, Hankerson enjoys shopping on Amazon. “I sit right here and 1, 2, 3 it’s at my house,” she said.

Pew research found that in 2016 four out of 10 seniors had smartphones, more than double than the amount in 2013.

“To tell you the truth, my children want me to get an iPhone,” Willig said. “I got an Android on my own and they’re always telling me ‘mommy, you need to get an iPhone.’ I can’t even manage the Android, now you want me to get an iPhone that I have to learn again?”

Toward the end of the school year, two sophomore students at Horace Mann School approached the Center for Community Value and Action program on campus, strengthening education between ethics, education and action. Its mission is to engage in communities and more.   

Both students “were interested in working with older adults and technology, and how we can broach a connection with one of our community partners,” said Conasia Watts, the program associate.

Both Watts and director Kimberly Bernard looked to their longest-standing partner, Riverdale Senior Services to host a tech exposition. RSS was already planning to do the event and were excited to have Horace Mann as a partner.

Both conversed with Dalton; surprisingly, she was thinking the same thing.

“Students will not only take place to be a part of some of the programming that’s already established at RSS — which they absolutely adore,” Bernard said. “They will also get an opportunity to be able to support the upcoming technology expo.”

Around the same time in June 2022, the center gave $1,000 to Tom Kelly, head of school of Horace Mann School — one of their honorees. They called it the Horace Mann RSS Older Adult Technology Initiative.

In response, Kelly generously awarded the center $5,000. Following, Jack Schaifer contributed additional money. Those funds helped create a Tech Expo and initiatives like that following the event on Friday, May 5, from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 6 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“They planned and did research on different types of items that would be a value for the expo in conjunction with RSS. They also thought about speakers and are even thinking about how the layout and the planning of the expo would look,” Watts said.

The expo is a partnership between the center, Horace Mann and Senior Planet from AARP, a flagship program of the Older Adults Technology Services by the organizations.

The expo is to showcase “number 1, our programs and all the services we offer, number two an opportunity for people to actually experience some state of the art exciting and emerging technology,” said Alexander Glazebrook, vice president of the operations at the organization.

He continued to mention during the expo there would be a lot of virtual reality demos alongside a good selection of some of their popular curriculum.

RSS, Riverdale Senior Services, technology, expo, senior citizens, Eric Dinowitz, Maggie Willig, Reenie Hankerson, Kimberly Bernard, Conasia Watts