Technology and aging, a subject I’m passionate about, is all over the e-waves. Yet, as hard as it may be to believe, there are many older adults who not only don’t have access to a computer, they don’t know how to use one or how it might be of a benefit to them.

For the past 2 years, I’ve been working with a group of older adults as a volunteer tutor in an ESL (English as a Second Language) program in downtown Minneapolis. These English language learners are refugees from Somalia and are a part of the Twin Cities’ thriving Somali community, about 30,000 strong. The students attend the SALT (Somali Adult Literacy Training) school free of charge, where they learn practical English to help with daily tasks such as making doctor appointments and understanding bus schedules. Unique challenges to their literacy learning, in addition to being victims of war, is the fact that prior to 1972, there was no written form of the Somali language. As a result, the Somali elders of today are missing basic literacy logic and struggle with Western concepts of learning. As a result, their literacy learning progression is considerably slower than that of most immigrant groups.

This past year, I conducted a 4 1/2 month study as part of my gerontology grad school work. Using SALT’s computer lab, 23 Somalis (average age 60) learned how to type using Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing software. None of the students had used a computer keyboard before. By the end of the study, most of the students were able to achieve 85% typing accuracy. Using standardize literacy exams, we found a positve trend of improved reading and writing among those of the lowest literacy level. Most importantly, many students were excited to have their own email accounts, using them to communicate with far-away friends and family, and to use the Internet to seek out news from their homeland.

It was exciting to be a part of introducing a simple technology – learning how to type – to a grateful and deserving group of elders. Endeavors like these are important because having competency of language can knock down community barriers and help our newest neighbors become confident, independent citizens.