By Pam McDonald, Producer and Host Foresight Radio
Abbie Richie, the founder of Senior Savvy, a tech and device training program for seniors and senior communities, describes how and why she started her business, as well as the various programs she offers to senior communities. Below are lightly edited takeaways from the podcast interview. And, you can listen to the entire program here.
Abbie Richie: There are so many of us who struggle with technology. It keeps changing. Just when you get used to it, there’s an update and it changes all over again. So, I saw a need for tech support, especially with older people, and that’s where Senior Savvy, my company, comes in — to relieve tech stress so seniors can thrive in today’s world.
Relieving Seniors’ Tech Stress
I started Senior Savvy in 2018 and it’s truly the marriage of two things that I love — all things tech and helping older people. You see, I grew up with my Nana and Papa and I have a deep love and admiration for older folks. It’s really my why. Several years ago, I was in between jobs trying to find something that I was passionate about doing. I used to work in corporate training development for 15 years, and I absolutely loved it. But when my company dissolved in 2017, I thought, now I can only do something I absolutely love.
And just about that time, I started helping my in-laws, who were downsizing. They needed help with their cable and their phones and their printer. So, I was helping them. Then a friend’s mom moved into town; she needed help with the whole setup. And I found myself helping several people in this situation. So, I thought, hmm, I like this, I really like doing this.
I live in Phoenix and there are many retirement communities, ones I’ve been driving by for years and years. I called them and offered a workshop I titled “Cell Phone Secrets for Seniors,” and by the end of the day, I had called five communities in my area and got three bookings. And then I thought, this has got legs.
Training Via Zoom
Over the last couple of years, I have been teaching workshops on a variety of topics, everything from email tips, because we all struggle with managing that inbox monster, to passwords and security, which is a huge topic. I was teaching in the communities, in person, and also doing tech support. So that’s really what I was growing and building. And then, of course, everything just completely changed last year about this time.
Everything closed; boom, boom, boom, one community after another, after another; lockdown. And so, I will tell you, I had some deep dark days last year in April, thinking to myself, what am I going to do? Should I just shelve Senior Savvy until COVID is over? But I had a lot of students asking for help. Then I had one in particular, Sandy, a 90-year-old woman at one of my communities who wondered, “Can you do this on Zoom?”
I thought, no, no way. That sounds like a hot mess to me, trying to get a whole group of much older people on Zoom to teach a class. It just really didn’t sound like something I would want to do. But the desire to serve my clients was greater than my mental challenges. There were a couple of communities already doing their updates on Zoom and had been for several years. That’s where I started; reaching out to communities that already had an infrastructure on Zoom. There was a population that already knew how to get on Zoom.
Giving Seniors the Benefit of Voice-Activated Virtual Assistants
I have taught workshops on how you can use digital assistants like Echo. I have to say, I think they are truly one assisted technology that is going to go far, because once your hands stop working well, and once you can start relying on a digital assistant, it is going to take you so far.
Some senior communities have this technology built in their apartments. But if residents don’t know how to use it or how it applies to them, they’re just not going to use it. They’ll just perceive the device as a knickknack unless they really know how to put it to use. And that’s where Senior Savvy can come in. A lot of times residents are like, “Oh, we’ve been waiting for someone to really help us figure out how to put this into action.”
I’ve had students ask me to give up on them. For instance, I regularly work with Elaine. She’s 90 and a resident in a senior community. She’s asked me several times to give up on her and I say, “Nope, not going to do it. As long as you keep coming here with your iPad, I’m not giving up on you.”
Making Tech Personal
Elaine and I did many lessons on getting connected on Zoom so she can connect with her family. And then she called me one Saturday to say, “I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know how you did it. But today I was able to watch my granddaughter at her gymnastics competition. That brought me so much joy. I was like there. I don’t know how I did it. It was a miracle.”
It’s like you said earlier when you were introducing me as the warden of your technical imprisonment. I have clients who’ve said to me, “Well, you are my technology fairy godmother.” Or “You’ve explained it time after time and now I get it.” That means the world to me, because then I know that my approach — which is repetition, stories, and reviewing for retention — is working and I’m going to keep doing that.
I think one of the most powerful ways that a senior community can use Senior Savvy is through the Tech Time workshops. Within the workshops, I am able to meet with people weekly and begin to build credibility and rapport with them, and discuss topics that matter to them in a way that’s going to be most understandable for their skillset.
Programs Specifically for Senior Communities
So, for instance, if we’re talking about iPads, we start with iPad basics, and then we build on that. I have a lot of students who still have their iPad in the box. I’ll tell them, let’s get it out of the box. I’m going to show you what all of the buttons and the features and the ports are. Then we talk about them because my students are looking for a formal education on a topic before they feel comfortable using their devices. So, I like to start with the basics and then build from there.
That’s one way. Another way that senior communities use Senior Savvy is through my tech ambassadorship program, which is typically a six- to eight-hour a month contract, where their residents can contact us, and we can help them remotely with their technology. The workshops are at the same time every week. We typically chart out the topics about two months in advance. So, people can sign up for the topic that matters to them or every topic. I can hold as many as 50 people in a workshop, but typically I have between 20 and 30.
I always start with some questions and needs assessment. I like to know how comfortable they are with this topic and what they would like to learn more about? Then I tailor my presentation so it’s more specific to the group’s needs. I do about a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation, keeping my eye out to see if they have questions. I always try to take their questions while I can in the moment. Otherwise, I hold them to the end, and I save about 15 to 20 minutes for questions.
Senior Savvy’s Ambassador Program Relieves Pressure on Staff
We designed our ambassador program, so it takes some pressure off the staff. I know a lot of the activity directors and other staff get stopped with tech questions all the time. And usually, this is not the thing the activity director wants to be spending their time on. So, the tech ambassadorship is an extension of our services where a community can sign up for six to eight hours of tech support. The activity director will email me and say, “Mrs. Jones is going to be reaching out to you. She needs help with this.” The agreement is we give the resident a half-hour of tech support. Anything over that time needs to be paid for by the resident.
Check out our website at www.seniorsavvy.net. You’ll see sample workshops we’re doing. You’ll also see information about the remote tech support. People can sign up for a membership if they want to and, if they’re going to be the type of client who needs help every now and then, they can sign up for an annual membership. And if you’re not living in a senior community, you can also join a workshop. I’m putting together a regular weekly workshop for people who want to continue to learn and keep their skills fresh.
The Future for Senior Savvy
One area that we are really interested in carving out is home health care, targeting and supporting folks who are aging at home. I’m putting more focus into the people who are aging in place. Also, I have helped so many people with telehealth. I happen to think that telehealth is a huge benefit to the senior population, because the convenience of just being able to see your doctor from the comfort of your own home is immense.
I have worked with several companies on putting together training videos to help residents get onto telehealth appointments easily. Initially, that was a big challenge for a lot of people. Now when I poll my students about how many have had a telehealth appointment, almost all of them will raise their hands.
So, at this point, they have made it onto Zoom to meet with their doctor, to have a doctor’s appointment. And a lot of people actually prefer it because they don’t have to negotiate transportation. They don’t have to leave their home. They don’t have to experience that discomfort of waiting in a doctor’s office for long periods of time, and it’s just so much safer for them to have their doctor’s appointments from home.
Senior Savvy’s put together many classes about Zoom: getting started on Zoom, scheduling a meeting on Zoom, Zoom etiquette, how to interact while you’re in a book club, for instance. And then here is my all-time, most requested Zoom topic, the virtual background.
Abbie Makes It Her Business to Know Emerging Tech
My clients ask me all the time how I got started with all this tech and I just make it my business to know. But back in the old days, the 90s, I started working my first corporate job at Genentech in the Bay Area while I was between undergrad and grad school. They were insistent that all the employees know how to use technology inside and out. It was a huge push and really the starting point of my interest in emerging technology and staying on the cutting edge.
Since then, I have just stayed up to speed with my tech skills as much as possible. There are things that I’m constantly like, “Oh, I gotta learn how to do that.” Sometimes it’s driven by my students. They’ll say, “We want to know more about Twitter”, and I’ll say, “Okay, let me put together a workshop for you.”
But one of the benefits, if you can call it that, or the silver lining of COVID is that it really pushed a lot of people out of their comfort zone and into a place where they had to learn how to use technology. Their deep desire to connect with family and friends spurred them to learn. And that really pushed tech into the forefront of so many people’s lives for sure.