Older adults learn to Skype with help from Penn State students

The moment she laid eyes on her beautiful great-granddaughter Sallee Wilkins knew she was in love … with Skype.

"My great-granddaughter lives in Italy, and I only get to see her maybe once a year," said Wilkins, "but with Skype I can watch her grow up."

Wilkins is one of 26 residents of The Village at Penn State, a State College retirement community, to receive a Skype lesson from volunteers Amanda Gresh, undergraduate student in health policy and administration, and Courtney Polenick, graduate student in human development and family studies, since January.

The student volunteers decided to teach older adults at The Village to use Skype after learning of their interest in such help from Amy Lorek, research and outreach associate with the Center for Healthy Aging at Penn State. 

The center conducts and supports research, outreach, and educational activities focused on promoting health and well-being from early adulthood into later-life.

"It's important to stay connected, whether it is with family or by participating in the community," said Lorek. "Students and older adults have much to teach each other. Student volunteer opportunities help facilitate conversations between generations and strengthen our connection and sense of community. We can be a happier, healthier community with that exchange. This project helps to connect students to community members while also connecting community members with their families."

Lorek introduced Gresh and Polenick to Kellie Vogt, a resident of The Village and self-described techy, who helped the students to train other interested residents.

"I've always had a knack for solving tech-related problems," said Vogt. "When dining with fellow residents, I often hear comments like, 'I can't get my email,' or 'My daughter replaced my old printer with a new one, but I don't know how it works.' I leave the meal thinking, 'I could fix that.'"

Vogt's own children and grandchildren live out of state, so she has experienced firsthand the joy of visiting with them via Skype.

"Since my oldest son, his wife, and his three children moved to Wyoming last year, I've toured their new home and visited with them on Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays, all via Skype," she said. "The face-to-face conversation that Skype enables is superior to a phone call, text message or email."

Room Service

Since January, the team has been meeting with residents of The Village in their homes to give them one-on-one tutorials in Skype. In March, Gresh and Polenick met with Annetta Pierce and Mary Gundel, who earned a degree in physical education in 1946 and a master of education degree in 1953 from Penn State, the 25th and 26th residents to receive the training. The students were greeted at the door of the apartment by the women's toy poodle and were quickly welcomed inside.

Pierce, a former Harrisburg School District guidance counselor was particularly interested in using Skype to talk with her nephew and his family in Camden, Maine.

"We visit him in Maine from time to time, but it would be so nice to see him more frequently," she said.

The Penn State students quickly got to work showing Pierce how to operate Skype. They then helped her practice dialing out and receiving calls. When they were finished with the lesson, they left the women with a handout containing step-by-step instructions and an invitation to contact them if they had questions.

The residents who have participated with Gresh, Polenick and Vogt in the Skype program each have their own story to tell about how they have benefitted.

"I have used it to reconnect with a couple of my high school friends," said Nancy Gamble. "Also, at Christmas time, our kids were going to Mexico and we couldn't go, so we Skyped with them. They could pick up their laptops and show us around the apartment where they were staying and around the pool and beach. One daughter I talk to almost every week by Skype."

"I thought I couldn't learn how to do it," said Wilkins, "but slowly I am learning, and if I can learn anybody can."

But of all those involved, the students have perhaps benefitted the most.

"Skype opens up the opportunity for people to have more face-to-face communication with their families," said Polenick, who is studying adult development and aging with a focus on family relationships. "By participating in this volunteer work I hope to understand the potential for Skype to assist in maintaining and enhancing family relationships."

Gresh, too, is interested in working with older adults in her future career. Her goal is to become a nursing home administrator. "I've always felt at home working with older adults," she said. "I really appreciate the wisdom they have to share."

Both students, as well as Vogt, plan to continue to help other residents of The Village learn to use Skype.

"The program is such a wonderful way for older adults to stay connected with their families," said Gresh. "It feels really good to be able to help them do this."

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Last Updated September 17, 2013