Bridging the digital divide at OPAL groups

15 August 2019
Opal digital session

The Cyrenians OPAL (Older People, Active Lives) service aims to maintain or increase older people’s independence and well-being across the West Lothian Council area. This blog comes from Peter MacLeod, who discusses how building up digital skills has helped older people stay socially connected.

How many of you can remember your first experience using a computer?  For me, it was as an 11 year-old in 1980 at my school computer club, where pupils could book 15 minute sessions with the single "Commodore PET" that the school had recently bought.

The sheer excitement and trepidation of first sitting down at the futuristic machine and having the green cursor blinking in front of me expectantly was quickly followed by a feeling of "what do I do...where do I start?".  It felt I was sitting in front of HAL from "2001 - A Space Odyssey".

Luckily a teacher was there to guide me and within a few minutes I'd written my first computer programme (all three lines of it!). Without his help, I might have quickly become frustrated or embarrassed in front of the other pupils, not knowing what to do.

When introducing an older person to using a laptop or tablet, I think they have these same feelings of trepidation.  Probably even more so, since they're having to deal with a large array of icons and controls on the screen that I didn't have to take in.  But a lot of them are as excited and willing to learn as any 11 year-old boy, and that's what makes the experience of teaching digital skills to our OPAL clients very rewarding.

To date, we've run a total of around 45 hour-long sessions across 4 of our older peoples’ groups as well as visiting a couple of clients at home, who were unable to get out to attend a group.  We ran one group as an intergenerational project, partnering up kids from the local scout group with OPAL clients.  This worked especially well, with the older people really responding to the scout’s enthusiasm.

As well as teaching people the basics, such as internet browsing, setting up emails and downloading apps, we've been able to get people using digital technology for their own purposes.  For example...

  • Creating and ordering a printed calendar using family photos
  • Learning about a long-lost cousin, who was a boxing champion, by finding his obituaries online
  • Learning how to use the iPad camera, and editing the photos before sending to friends and family
  • Discovering brain-teaser games such as Sudoko and Word Search
  • Using directions on Google Maps to find out bus routes to travel in West Lothian
  • Setting up an Amazon account and then searching and ordering a DVD of her favourite Artist, Andre Rieu

It was great to find these projects that had real meaning to people, and in some cases led to them buying their own tablet or upgrading their basic phone to a smartphone.  Even the clients who tried out using our OPAL tablets but decided it wasn’t for them in the long run still seemed to have fun and get something out of the sessions.

OPAL groups are about ensuring older people stay socially connected, and our sessions have definitely shown that learning digital skills can play an important role in building these connections.  We hope to continue with more sessions very soon.

Cyrenians OPAL service is provided by a dedicated team of volunteers, who are essential to ensure we deliver our services successfully. We’re always looking for more volunteers to join us! Please contact us on 01506 815 815 or OPAL@cyrenians.scot or complete the volunteer application form.