Imagine this: a group of seniors sitting in the library on their laptops, sharing notes and helping each other learn complicated new subjects.
No, not seniors in college—seniors in assisted living.
That’s commonplace at The Fountains at La Cholla, an independent living, assisted living and memory care community in Tucson, Arizona, operated by Tucson-based Watermark Retirement Communities.
The Fountains is home to a resident technology program that “Google is watching with an eager eye,” Jack Herklotz, Watermark’s director of IT, tells Senior Housing News. In fact, Google took a hands-on approach in helping create and then run the program—Watermark Engage! Powered by Google—at the community.
Recently, 14 Fountains residents between 76 and 98 years old “graduated” from Watermark Engage!, armed with a Google Chromebook that’s theirs to keep and wide-ranging knowledge on how to use it.
Plans are in the works for a second go at the program—and interest from the tech giant has only grown.
“Google is even more excited about Phase II,” Herklotz says.
Creating ‘Google for Seniors’
Many seniors want to learn about technology, Herklotz says. Often, however, they’re either afraid or concerned the payoff isn’t worth the amount of effort required.
As Herklotz soon discovered, Google Chromebooks can bridge that gap.
Herklotz’s wife, a special education teacher, had received a grant for Chromebooks, which, according to Herklotz, are “easy to understand, easy to operate and very easy to teach.”
At his wife’s suggestion, Herklotz looked into whether Google would be interested in partnering on a senior-focused initiative, if Watermark purchased the Chromebooks. Google already had “Google for Education” and “Google for Work,” he notes, so the progression to “Google for Seniors” made sense.
“It’s opening Google up to a whole new audience—a huge audience—and there are some incredible numbers of untapped seniors who have so much to gain from access to the Internet,” C. Jill Hofer, Watermark director of communication and public relations, tells SHN. “It’s a major opportunity for Google.”
As far as he knows, working with senior living communities was something Google had never done before, Herklotz adds.
At first, it wasn’t clear that the program would even pique residents’ interest—but their interest levels wound up being a non-issue.
“The residents’ excitement and their energy was beyond what we could have hoped for,” Fran Donnellan, the executive director of The Fountains at La Cholla, tells SHN.
Videochatting California, emailing China
At the start of Watermark Engage!, Watermark bought 14 residents their own Chromebooks, and a trainer from Google for Work flew out to The Fountains to take part in the inaugural class.
“He brought some swag, too,” Herklotz says.
Throughout the weeks-long program, different Google representatives flew to Watermark several times to speak about the company and help teach residents about Chromebooks and other Google tools. Google representatives also attended the residents’ “graduation” ceremony, eating cake, snapping pictures and celebrating with the class participants.
The program involved weekly workshops on topics such as browsing the Internet, using apps, sending emails and video chatting using Google Hangouts.
Soon enough, residents in the class were video-chatting with residents at The Fountains at The Carlotta in Palm Desert, California, one of Watermark’s 36 other senior living communities.
Another resident—who, prior to the class, had never used a computer—sent an email to her son in Shanghai, China. The son was so shocked that he assumed it was a spam email and called The Fountains to check, Donnellan says, laughing.
Though not taking away from the program’s success, Watermark did experience some minor bumps in the road at the start of Watermark Engage!—especially on the infrastructure side.
“We found out we had overloaded the system,” Donnellan says. “We had 14 people in one room trying to get on the Internet, so we had to add some more technology.”
Ready for Phase II
Donnellan partly attributes Google’s willingness to partner with Watermark on Watermark’s willingness to cover the cost themselves.
“Because Watermark was willing to take a chance and purchase the Chromebooks, and make that financial commitment, I think Google found that spirit encouraging and enlightening,” she says.
The second phase of the program—aptly called Phase II—is scheduled to begin in September. This time around, the residents who took part in Phase I will act as additional teachers for the new students.
Herklotz is also working on creating a Watermark Engage! curriculum to distribute to all 37 Watermark communities; that way, they can participate, too.
“We want to bind together our communities through this technology,” he says. “We want to have residents talking to other residents, over email and video hangouts.”
Google is excited to begin Phase II because there’s less guessing involved, Herklotz adds.
“It went from a foggy notion to something that’s a little more concrete,” Herklotz says. “There are definite goals, definite things that are being learned.”
Written by Mary Kate Nelson