Monday, March 09, 2009

Yes You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

When I talk about online software that enables volunteers to be part of the process, without a doubt, the concern that comes up most often is something along these lines: “My volunteers are too old and couldn’t / wouldn’t do this”. I hear this so often that I fear that these same leaders of volunteers who are overly concerned that their senior volunteers cannot use a website might also be restricting seniors from filling certain volunteer opportunities because it is ‘beyond them’. To me it looks like a lose-lose scenario that is based on three points.
  1. It is a myth that seniors are incapable of using a website to help you coordinate their volunteer effort.
  2. By encouraging seniors who are unfamiliar the internet to give it a try, you not only strengthen your volunteer pool, but you also help them to discover something that will enrich their lives. It’s a great way to thank them for their volunteer efforts.
  3. The belief that seniors are incapable of using a website, may also be an indicator that seniors are steered away from performing some of the more responsible volunteer roles.
So firstly, let’s debunk the myth that seniors who volunteer are not capable of, and/or are unwilling to use a website. This is important to understand because it will allow volunteer coordinators, who use web-based volunteer management software, to streamline their volunteer program and tap into a large percentage of the population. Seniors appear to be embracing the internet: governments in Canada (, the USA ( and Australia ( for example, have portions of their websites dedicated to seniors. Seniors are dating online through sites such as, and Seniors are publishing their thoughts online as evidenced by sites such as and They are, of course, also blogging through sites that cater to everyone rather than seniors only. Seniors are banking online, investigating worrisome medical symptoms, investigating travel destinations (and looking for last minute deals to save money), shopping online (particularly great when reduced mobility becomes a factor), finding long lost friends, and even keeping up with their grandchildren through Facebook.

A research project conducted in Canada between 2004 and 2007 found that 51 per cent of Canadians above the age of 60 are using the Internet. Given that this data is at least 2 years old and that the 60+ crowd is the fastest growing internet-using demographic, there are likely more of your senior volunteers online than you realize. As stated by the Pew Internet & American Life Project: on a typical day, 69 percent of wired seniors use the Internet, compared with 56 percent of all users. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, seniors use e-mail as much as any other age group. The Media Metrix Report shows that older adults (55+ years) now comprise 13 percent of total online users - outpacing 13 to 17 year olds who trail at 7.6 percent. The report also shows that the older online audience surf the Internet more frequently, stay there longer, and check out more Internet pages than even their teenage counterparts, thereby contradicting the widely held belief that seniors are technology laggards (according to a recent Media Metrix report).I don’t want to make the mistake of suggesting the every senior will now go online. And I certainly would not want a senior volunteer who has been helping your organization for years (perhaps even long before you got there) to feel forced into it. However, I do believe that for just about everyone, there are benefits to be found on the internet; but of course, that does not mean everyone must go online. I also believe that there are benefits to a physical fitness routine, but that does not mean that everyone (including me unfortunately) chooses to have one. Those that do, will reap the benefits, and those that don’t, will not.

Okay, so enough of point number 1. What about the senior volunteers who do not access the internet?

If you think old age means that you can't learn new things, then think again. Research shows that older people can, and do, learn new things. According to Microsoft, seniors recognize the benefits of computers and the internet in the areas of employability (paid and unpaid) and socialization. Non-users, however, cite high levels of intimidation and a general lack of understanding about how a computer and the Internet may benefit them. Seniors who are unfamiliar with using the internet may claim they have no need for it; in many cases this ‘claim’ has more to do with a feeling that they would not be good at using the internet. Take a moment to think of two or three items of equal importance on your to-do list. Now ask yourself, which one of the three tasks would you do first? Most people would choose the ‘most enjoyable’ or ‘easiest’ task first. It is human nature to gravitate toward the tasks that we do well, and avoid tasks that we have difficulty with. Many seniors don’t avoid using the internet because they truly feel they have no use for it. According to Microsoft’s research, many avoid it because they don’t think they could accomplish using it.

So, although the cupcakes at the volunteer reception are truly appreciated, why not embrace the opportunity to offer your senior volunteers a comfortable introduction to the internet? Not only are you giving back to your volunteers in a real and tangible way, you are also providing training, which makes your volunteers more valuable. The UK government's science and technology think tank (Foresight) identified five activities, in their Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing, that play an important role in reducing the natural effect of aging. Among these five activities was to ‘keep learning’. Researchers at Stanford University in the USA, have found that memory loss can be improved by 30 to 50 percent simply by using and stretching our metal capacities. One of the hallmarks of aging well, is maintaining cognitive function. Use it or lose it! As Gandhi put it, "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."

There is one organization in particular that I work with, that has a large senior population. In this organization the number of volunteers who access and edit their volunteer information on the internet has grown from 65% to 100%. For many of these volunteers the catalyst was just a matter of seeing their friends use the internet to log their volunteer hours. It sent shivers down my spine when I was told that these senior volunteers were introduced to the internet through our, and now are using the internet for a variety of things well beyond accessing their volunteer information.

There is a wide range of benefits for seniors if they learn how to navigate the internet. Volunteer organizations can take the initiative to facilitate an introduction to using the internet, while supporting the goals of their volunteer program. Facilitating this kind of training is a great way to give back to your senior volunteers. For many seniors it’s simply a matter of having the opportunity to learn. If you create an ‘internet tutor’ volunteer position, it would allow your senior volunteers to learn how to use the internet; and in turn your volunteer program would benefit from a more highly trained volunteer pool. Your senior volunteers would benefit from all the ways the internet can make life easier and more enjoyable. It’s a win-win situation.

On to point three…If leaders of volunteers wrongfully assume that seniors are incapable of using a website, what other volunteer opportunities are they consciously or unconsciously keeping senior volunteers from filling?

I don’t have to look very far around me to see examples of seniors doing extraordinary, highly involved volunteer work. Jerry, who retired well over a decade ago, was the bookkeeper for a hospice I‘ve worked with. The financials were completed monthly within days of month end, and donors had thank you cards mailed to them within two days of receiving their donation. He did a stellar job.Joseph, a fellow Rotarian in a club that runs one of the largest ribfests in North America, was organizing the volunteers for the event, largely through email, into his late seventies and now well into his eighties he still organizes the volunteers for part of the major event.Senior volunteers are very capable of learning new skills and when it comes to volunteering they are eager to take on challenging roles.

So what’s with the surfing picture? This is me, at 47 and my first time surfing. No, I could not do as many things as the younger surfers could. They also had a language all of their own, and I had to learn a few new words. Yes it was frustrating when I couldn’t get the board to go where I wanted it to, and yes I fell sometimes. But I was given the opportunity to give it a try, and I discovered that it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I imagined. And now that I have learned how to surf a little, it’s something I can do whenever I get the chance. Not only can you teach old dog new tricks, but more importantly, he’ll be a happier dog for it.