For decades, Bill Frautschi ’72 traveled west each summer to hike through Rocky Mountain National Park he especially loved trekking above Northern Colorado’s expansive tree line.
“It felt like another world,” said Frautschi, a resident of rural LeRoy. “It was just beautiful and really captured my imagination. Unfortunately, I’m not able to do that anymore. Age has kind of caught up with me along with some medical concerns.”
Frautschi, 75, is thankful, however, that he can revisit the Rockies by scrolling through a couple thousand digital photos from his past adventures.
Until recently, Frautschi could only see the images on his digital camera’s small viewfinder screen. But after completing an Oasis Connections Technology Education program for seniors provided by Illinois State University’s Mennonite College of Nursing (MCN), Frautschi learned how to download all his pictures from about 20 memory cards onto a laptop computer.
“I certainly never considered myself a very good photographer. But it’s hard to take a bad picture out there when you’re looking at nature that the good Lord has created,” Frautschi said. “It’s very nice to see these photos in a larger format on the computer now. It certainly brings back a lot of memories.”
Frautschi is among nearly 250 local seniors who have participated in the Oasis program, which aims to close the generational digital divide through its technology literacy curriculum. MCN’s Elizabeth Kosuth managed classes taught in McLean County over the past two years, primarily at Normal’s Activity and Recreation Center (ARC), the Bloomington Housing Authority, and LeRoy’s Living Well United Senior Center.
“There is a big problem with older adults facing social isolation,” Kosuth said. “It has been shown that technology can ease social isolation.”
According to the National Institute on Aging, the health risks of prolonged isolation and loneliness among seniors are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Kosuth said technology can be a powerful tool to combat isolation and loneliness by connecting seniors with friends, family, and—in Frautschi’s case—their personal memories.
“There are a lot of people my age, and even older, who aren’t as familiar with technology who have benefited from these classes,” Frautschi said. “I think there’s a need, and the classes are very helpful.”
Using $5,000 from Illinois State’s $2.5 million Advanced Nursing Education Workforce (ANEW) Program federal grant, Kosuth purchased a subscription to the Oasis curriculum. She used additional grant funds to print instructor manuals and copies of roughly 300 spiral-bound reference books for class participants to keep.
Kosuth then identified community partners to host classes, including Barb Whiteman, the founder and director of Living Well United in LeRoy.
“It has been life changing for some of our seniors,” Whiteman said. “Not only in learning technology, which they have done. But it’s also been a social experience. We want them to take the classes because they’re going to learn technology and because they’re going to be together with new people, or friends and neighbors.”
Oasis classes generally consist of six to 10 seniors and are taught by volunteers. The curriculum covers a wide range of technology topics, from “Meet the Computer,” to sending emails, to an overview of Microsoft Office programs, to using smartphones and tablets. Lessons about data privacy and security are woven throughout the classes to address concerns widely voiced by area seniors in a pre-class survey.
Recently retired Blue Ridge High School business teacher Lois Dowling ’86 leads introductory computer and Microsoft Word classes at Living Well United, while LeRoy librarian Denise Woltkamp ’88 provides iPhone and iPad instruction. And a group of students with Illinois State’s Technology Assistance Community Outreach Service (TACOS) registered student organization (RSO) teaches Oasis classes that cover using Facebook, iPhones, and Androids.
“This experience has been such a blessing,” said TACOS President Lauren Buggar, a senior cybersecurity major. “The people are so nice. They don’t necessarily need all the capabilities of what technology can offer, but it just helps each individual in a certain way. Sometimes it’s the little things—being able to text a family member, being able to send a cute photo, being able to print a novel, or being able to make a Facebook account.”
After learning the basics, some participants have expanded their tech knowledge. As a member of the Living Well United board, Frautschi is now using his laptop to monitor bank records for the senior center. And Mary Lou Munster, 79, became Living Well United’s treasurer after learning how to manage the center’s finances using Microsoft Word.
As an instructor, Buggar tailors the Oasis curriculum to match the interests of class participants, and she begins each session by addressing tech questions.
“Many of the seniors have family all over the country that they can’t see all the time,” Buggar said. “So, they have questions for me about, ‘How do we use FaceTime? How can we use Skype or Zoom on our devices? How does the camera work? How do I add photos to a call? How can I text family members?’ Because they want to receive pictures of their grandbabies and see what their kids are up to.”
Along with teaching Oasis classes, Whiteman said TACOS students assist seniors with personal technology issues as they arise. She recalls 93-year-old Harlan “Pop” Bottles handing over his smartphone to a TACOS student who, after solving the problem in less than a minute, chatted with Bottles about his life and experience in World War II for the next hour.
“The students taught so much to our seniors, and the seniors had a ball,” Whiteman said. “The students told me they had a ball too. We are just so grateful.”
According to post-class surveys administered by Kosuth, 98% of Oasis participants in McLean County have agreed that the training increased their ability to age in place, and they agreed that the training improved their quality of life.
“Through technology, seniors are able to stay connected with the wider world,” Kosuth said. “It connects them to education and wellness opportunities, such as exercise videos. Or, if they learn Zoom or FaceTime, they can talk to their family and friends. This is all a way to stay connected and less isolated.”
Whiteman said the Oasis program has proven to be particularly effective for seniors who may not have used technology in their professional careers because of the curriculum’s detailed, picture-oriented, step-by-step instructions.
“When it says, ‘click this’ and shows you a step-by-step picture, they get confidence to do those steps,” Whiteman said. “And when they go home, they’ll have the book so they can do it on their own.”
As participants gain knowledge and confidence, Whiteman said some of the seniors at Living Well United are now helping each other with technology questions.
“Through peer mentoring, it’s fun for them to be the person who knows something, or to be the person who is taught by their neighbor,” Whiteman said.
Although the initial four-year grant through MCN’s McLean County Senior Resource Center expired over the summer, Kosuth is hopeful that community partners who observed successful outcomes through the Oasis program will continue offering technology training for seniors.
“I am motivated by helping people, and to know that this need was out there and that we found a way to try and meet it has just been very gratifying for me,” Kosuth said.
From her vantage point with Living Well United, Whiteman said Illinois State’s impact on rural McLean County seniors has been “truly life changing.”
“Seniors can learn new technology,” Whiteman said. “They are amazing, and they end up doing really well.”