Silver surfers get smartphone savvy Nonprofit organization helps seniors stay young by teaching them how to interact and create content
In a room at the service center of Anlelin Residential Community in Beijing, Fu Guiling and her neighbors fiddle with touch screens, shaking their smartphones while giggling.
Fu, 66, was intimidated by mobile devices until she attended a course by See Young, a nonprofit organization in Beijing, which defines its mission as helping the elderly to harness technology.
Picture and video sharing, online chatting and shopping may be easy for the younger generation, but for China’s more than 230 million elderly who grew up in a pre-digital age, technology often moves too fast for them to keep up.
Forgotten by tech
“What’s the problem with my phone? The screen has turned black. I can’t open it,” Fu said to a See Young volunteer.
She was confused by the “screen lock” function. Two weeks ago, her daughter gave her an unwanted Huawei smartphone. Previously, she had never owned such a device.
“I only know how to answer the phone,” she said, laughing.
However, the See Young course is teaching Fu and several of her neighbors the various ways to use social networking app WeChat, such as enlarging the font, using the “shake” function and how to create group chats.
Since it opened its doors in 2011, See Young has helped more than 18,000 senior citizens across the country and has more than 3,800 volunteers, mostly university students.
“Everything started from my beloved grandma,” said Zhang Jiaxin, co-founder of See Young, which was developed by a student volunteer team at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.
Born in a small town in Northwest China’s Shaanxi province, Zhang was brought up by his grandmother. In 2008, he went to university in Beijing, and the only way for his grandmother to see him was through video calls.
“I taught her step by step, but she still failed to understand,” Zhang said. “I realized that there must be many grandmothers in China who cannot operate computers and other modern gadgets, so I started See Young to make life easier for seniors.”
Aging poses many challenges — diminished eyesight, memory loss, decreased agility. Older people often find themselves isolated by modern technology that the rest of society finds indispensable.
China had more than 230 million people age 60 or older at the end of last year, accounting for 16.7 percent of the total population, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The country’s elderly will account for about one-quarter of the population by 2030.
Closing the gap between the elderly and new technology can be an effective way to solve many of the problems associated with aging, and can open up a whole new social aspect to the lives of seniors.
Fu used to work at Beijing Enamel Factory, which produces cloisonne. Since retiring, she visits Beijing’s Tiantan (Temple of Heaven) Park each morning, before going to the vegetable market and returning home to make lunch.
“My daughter was very busy. She installed some apps for me, but had no time to show me how to use them. I’m a slow learner,” Fu said.
Fu stuck a small piece of paper on the back of her phone, with her screen name and phone number written on it.
“I can’t remember much, but technology helps me connect with old friends. I feel young again,” she said.
The name See Young is derived from an ancient Chinese poem that states, “The sun never rises twice in one day.”
However, Zhang said that “learning how to navigate the tech world can help seniors stay young”.
Zhang Jin, a 61-year-old former pharmacist, is learning how to use shared bikes, manage money online and create video content. “In a rapidly developing society, we are afraid of being left behind by the young. So we must make efforts to get to grips with new technology,” Zhang Jin said.
Supported by government funds and donations, See Young’s courses cover mobile payments, online hospital registration, WeChat use and creating video content from images and music. Each course provides a lecturer and several volunteers.
Wang Xianggui, a 22-yearold See Young lecturer and junior student with the university, said: “The kind of courses given are based on our research. For example, as the older generation treasures memories of the past, we teach them how to use an app to digitalize old photos.”
Digital groups also provide education on security. Another co-founder, Luo Xu, said the elderly are often targets for financial fraud, so they offer a class on what to be wary of.
The nonprofit organization has published three books. It has also filmed 10 online courses since July, helping local communities to organize lessons and activities without See Young’s participation.
“Our priority is connecting the older generation with technology. We plan to cover more topics that they are passionate about, such as cultural heritage,” Luo said.
Wang said that in addition to enjoying an easier life offered by technology, some seniors attend courses just to chat to others and avoid loneliness. Wang, an information engineering major, plans to work for an internet company after graduating.
“Perhaps I will be able to help seniors connect with technology in another way, like inventing more seniorfriendly digital tools,” he said.
I can’t remember much, but technology helps me connect with old friends. I feel young again.” Fu Guiling, 66, who took a See Young course to learn how to use her smartphone
Volunteers teach senior citizens in a residential community in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, how to use smartphones.