Introducing Wire the Wise

Connecting generations through bagels, coffee and tech

Wire the Wise at McCarren Park in Brooklyn

When I decided I was going to pursue my Master’s in Social Journalism at the CUNY J-School last fall, I essentially knew two things: I needed loans and a community to serve. The financial aid came quickly, and to my surprise so did the community. Being a member of only the second cohort of students earning their Masters in #SocialJ, we were told over and over again that our goal throughout the program should be to listen to the needs of a specific community and then figure out a way to serve those needs. Coming from a background in education and youth development, I have always had a desire for creating communities and was excited to build on that passion in my graduate work.

In the process of trying to figure out the community that I would eventually spend the next year listening to and learning from, I received a message on Facebook from a friend about a volunteering opportunity that she thought I might be interested in — a program that pairs young professionals in New York City with senior adults and provides one-on-one technology help. I quickly clicked on the link that she sent, which led me to the homepage of Wire the Wise.

I’ve always felt connected to the generations ahead of me and the generations behind me, and when I discovered the work being done with Wire the Wise, I realized that my passion for both loving and understanding these two generations could come in handy.

When I met with Ellie Epstein, founder of the organization, I knew that this was the type of work that was worth my time and energy for the next year. Not only did I see an incredible amount of potential in terms of what I could contribute to Wire the Wise with the work I was doing in school, but this idea of creating intergenerational connections really brought out my passion for these two uniquely different communities of people.

Ellie and myself celebrating one year of Wire the Wise this past March

Not only is Wire the Wise a passion project for me personally, but it is a project that is in need of investment. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the population of adults over the age of 85 could double to 84 million people by 2020. In addition, a report from the Consumer Technology Association shows that the active aging market represented a $24.4 billion market opportunity in 2015 and is expected to grow to $42.7 billion in 2020.

While it is clear that our younger generation is winning the technology game, it is also unfortunately clear that our older generation has been forced to sit on the sidelines. In order for aging generations to live longer, healthier lives, they need to feel connected.

According to a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, both social isolation and loneliness are linked to a higher risk of mortality for those age 52 and older. For so many of us, our physical interactions with one another are just as valuable as our digital ones.

At Wire the Wise, we value both of these connections equally, which is why we host free public events and provide bagels and coffee for our seniors and young professionals. We know that social interaction is important, but we also want to spend time teaching seniors in our community the value of technology and how it can be beneficial in their lives and their connections with loved ones.

Having worked directly with approximately 600 seniors and young professionals over the course of the past 8 months, it’s exciting to see the growth that is happening with our weekly meet-ups throughout Manhattan. While our events are meaningful, and certainly the centerpiece of our work, I have come to understand that as passionate as some seniors are about learning technology, there is a language barrier that exists and is often incredibly difficult to overcome. Peggy Becker, who is 81 years old and a frequent attendee of our events, put it this way:

“You have to learn a whole vocabulary. And your brain has to work a little faster. It’s like learning rap, you know, when you’re used to music of the fifties. So it’s not easy.”
Peggy Becker at our event at the 14th Street Y

If seniors have a pre-existing language barrier prior to their experience with Wire the Wise, it can be difficult for them to adjust and adapt to using technology independently and on their own. After speaking with several seniors about this issue and what makes it difficult for them, here are the two conclusions I was able to draw from their experience with technology: Seniors prefer simple definitions of various technology terms, and seniors also preferring writing down their information as they’re learning.

My plan is to create physical technology guides for seniors that provide simple, easy-to-understand language to explain various terms associated with the internet, social media, and devices themselves.

Although it might at first seem more logical to provide a digital version of this guide, I have learned by listening to this community that many seniors prefer to have physical copies of information.

While the content of these guides is still in progress, I have been hard at work analyzing the different components of creating guides that best meet the needs of my community. The sketches below demonstrate my thought process so far:

After listening to my community and understanding that learning the language associated with technology can be a challenge, I also know that there is much room for improvement as I continue to build on this idea and would love your input!

To reach out to me directly about this particular project, e-mail katelyn.gillum@journalism.cuny.edu.

To follow Wire the Wise on our journey, click here or follow us on social media.