ACTS program helps seniors connect online during pandemic

Local News Technology

New Silver Threads program seeks to combat isolation for older folks through technology and teamwork

Photo by Shelley Brown.

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, a group of seniors gathers together on Zoom — a feat that would have been impossible for them only a few weeks ago. It’s the last class of the session and the students are reminiscing about the teacher’s jokes, the things they have learned, and the friends they have made along the way. On the lesson plan for today: how to scan QR codes.

The students are part of the Actively Connecting Together Safely (ACTS) program run by Silver Threads senior services. The program is designed to teach seniors how to use technology in an effort to help combat the loneliness and boredom that was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We really recognized that during COVID, older adults were really isolated, and a lot of them weren’t connected with anybody digitally which made them even more isolated,” said Shelley Brown, program manager at Silver Threads. The ACTS program came out of a committee she was on while working for the City of Victoria, called the health and recreation partnership. 

 They start with the basics. Each pupil begins with a one-on-one tutorial where Dave Bassett, the digital computer skills teacher, assesses their level of knowledge and gets them set up on Zoom, where the rest of the course takes place.

Brown and her team received a New Horizons for Seniors grant from the federal government which allowed them to purchase seven iPads and seven other tablets for the seniors to take home and try out before committing to buy one. It also enabled them to offer the program free of charge. This was a big step for ACTS, as the price of programs can be a barrier for seniors looking to learn. 

“Some people don’t even know how to turn on a computer or an iPad. They don’t even know what it is,” said Brown. “They’ve been gifted it by a grandson or a grandchild or a neighbour, but they don’t know how to use it.”

From there, the program covers topics including cyber security, word processing, entertainment, gaming, and online services such as banking and ordering groceries. It also features lessons on nutrition and mental health from Island Health specialists and presentations on how to access free resources through the Greater Victoria Public Library. 

“I think that as you get older, you think that this digital world is just for young people, but it’s not,” said Brown. For inspiration, she shows the class fellow senior content creators with large followings on Instagram and TikTok.

“You have people like this one woman, she’s in her 80s, and she’s this huge influencer, and she has all these companies supporting her with different products. That’s pretty amazing,” said Brown. 

Dave Bassett, who has been teaching technology for around 40 years, offered to be the computer skills instructor at ACTS for half his usual rate because he thought the program was such a good idea. He offers all of his students free support through email and over the phone even after the course has ended.

“Because they’re a customer of mine just once, they’re a customer forever with me.”

Both Bassett and Brown feel technology has become increasingly important for seniors during the pandemic. As some of the most vulnerable to the ills of COVID-19, restrictions on seniors have been especially harsh. During outbreaks, care home residents have faced lockdowns that prevented them from leaving their room at any time. 

The instructors of the program have seen its benefits first-hand. Bassett says one of his favourite parts is watching the students make friends with each other.

“They were kind of hermits, and now they’ve found a fellow hermit that has the same interest, and they’ve become friends with them and they chat daily.”

Brown speaks of a woman who previously only had a landline in her home — no cable TV, no wifi. When she was invited to join ACTS, she agreed immediately. Coming in to pick up her tablet and have her one-on-one was the first time she had left her house for a year and a half, since the start of the pandemic. 

“Her world just exploded,” said Brown. “She says, ‘Today I’m in Venice! I’m going on a tour along the canal!’ and then ‘Today I’m doing a cooking class!’ And she’s doing all of this online.”

The funding from the grant will run out after the next ACTS session. The team is crafty and says they will find a way to continue offering the program, but the lack of federal funding means they will likely have to start charging a small fee. 

Silver Threads is actively looking for volunteers to help offer tech support to their clients. To volunteer as computer support with Silver Threads senior services, email Shelley Brown at shelleybrown@silverthreads.ca.