Senior Living Tech Turns Residents Into English Teachers

Students in Brazil are fine tuning their English language skills — and they owe it all to senior living.

A partnership between a school in Brazil and Chicago-area Windsor Park has brought worldwide attention to the Illinois senior living community — one of 13 Covenant Retirement Communities located throughout the United States.

A YouTube video documenting the Speaking Exchange project, which connects seniors at the Carol Stream, Ill. continuing care retirement community (CCRC) and students of Brazil’s CNA language school network, has gone viral with more than 1 million views since it was posted in May. The pilot program debuted earlier this year, and will soon involve more retirement communities throughout the United States.

The CNA network includes 587 language schools, of which only two are currently involved in the program. As the program is rolled out to all CNA schools within a year from now, more senior living participants will be key to the program’s success, says CNA Education Director Marcelo Barros.

The Speaking Exchange program uses video chat technology to bring seniors face-to-face with younger, non-native English speakers trying to learn the language. Both the program and video chat software were developed by CNA and its advertising agency FCB Brasil.

“We’ve gotten calls from other senior communities and around the world asking, ‘How can we do this?’ since launching the Youtube video,” says Windsor Park Executive Director Karen Larson. “We put it on our website so people can see how residents are engaged in our community. It’s another way we can show the value of living at here.”

About 15 seniors engage in a 15-minute conversation with CNA students using CNA’s Skype-like program twice a week, and then the videos are uploaded for teachers’ review. The seniors and students both volunteer to participate, and although the seniors interact with different partners each time, some have continued their relationship with certain students via email, Larson says.

It’s a win-win project for both seniors and students, and is fairly inexpensive to coordinate, she says.

The CCRC already had four computers in a designated resident business center, but was able to purchase four new laptops and install CNA software specifically for the program.

“We put the [new] computers in an empty apartment,” Larson says, adding that the resident business center was too open and not conducive to the Speaking Exchange program. “We are fortunate to have wireless Internet throughout our campus, so if we need to move to another apartment we can do so easily.”

Larson says senior living providers with mobile technology devices and wireless Internet can easily implement the program, and seniors of all mobilities can participate.

“Anyone here can do it,” she says. “Even if bed-bound or in a wheelchair.”
The program boosts residents’ confidence and gives them a sense of pride, she says, adding that a growing number continue to express interest in getting involved.

“The residents feel like they’re helping someone, contributing to someone bettering themselves,” she says.

Many residents once worked in the education field and are able to utilize past skills while engaging with the students, she says.

For assisted living and memory care provider The Blake, in Ridgeland, Miss., the YouTube video struck a chord.

“The thought of our seniors helping — I can hear them saying, ‘I taught them to say…’ . They would be thrilled with that,” says Gayle Kramer, activity director at The Blake.

Kramer reached out to Larson following the project’s YouTube video launch, and says while her clients may not be able to engage in this particular program, it has inspired a slew of ideas regarding resident activity.

“We could have [non-native English speaking] students come in, and our residents could work with them on sight words,” Kramer says.

Kramer sees the Speaking Exchange program as a great programming tool for many senior living residences.

“There’s a need for this type of interaction — from retirement to nursing homes,” she says.

And, the program serves as an invaluable tool for the students who participate as well, Barros says.

More than 90% of CNA teachers are Brazilian native speakers teaching English, Barros says.

“Students don’t often have the opportunity to talk to native English speakers,” he says. “For many, this is their first chance. They say it helps them.”

While CNA does not yet have tangible measures of how the program has helped students because it is so new, Barros says once the program is offered at all schools CNA will begin tracking progress of students who choose and choose not to participate in the program to evaluate its impact.

For both groups of participants, the program offers a unique cultural experience, Barros and Larson agree.

“It’s breaking down barriers,” Larson says.

CNA will extend the program’s reach into Covenant Retirement Communities’ other properties, Larson says, adding that the seniors who were at first hesitant to sign up now look forward to the weekly activity and are more open now trying new things.

“We work with the other two [Illinois Covenant Retirement Communities], The Holmstad in Batavia and Covenant Village of Northbrook on many collaborations, and we are now talking about the Speaking Exchange program with those two campuses,” Larson says.

Eventually, CNA will also look to partner with senior living providers outside of the Covenant Retirement Communities network in addition to those within the network as more CNA schools adopt the program, Barros says.

Written by Cassandra Dowell