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Celebration of Service

Cowabunga! Silver surfers jump into virtual waters

In the UK, an IBM grant helps get seniors online

Save money, feel better about yourself, learn a skill, re-connect with lost family -- for certain age groups, the benefits of the Internet are obvious and far-reaching. However, many older people are “digitally excluded” from technology advantages, creating a divide that not only negatively impacts quality of life, but also affects social support structures.

In the U.K., one out of five people between the ages of 55 and 64 have never been online. This digital divide increases to three out of five for those over 65 years old—more than 6 million people. Also, digitally excluded individuals are twice as likely to draw on public services, according to a study by the UK Online Centres. An analysis by the U.K. Post Office determined that buying products and services online can save a household an average of £560 every year, or more than US$900.

“Technology can make a huge difference if people are given the chance,” says Colin Crook, a technical sales support specialist for IBM in Greenock, Scotland. Colin is helping give them that chance, by organizing volunteers to lead sessions in Digital Unite’s “Silver Surfers” program, with support from an IBM Catalyst Grant.

An empowered older community

Since 2002, Digital Unite, a registered social enterprise in the U.K, has promoted the introduction and use of digital technologies by older people with its annual Silver Surfers’ Day campaign and taster sessions. They estimate more than 150,000 older people have tried digital technologies because of the campaign.

Colin, together with Mark Wakefield, IBM’s Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs manager in the UK, felt that IBM employees with their everyday, practical experience with technology would be well suited to help Silver Surfers take a dip into new waters.

As part of IBM’s Celebration of Service, Colin became the service leader of the initiative to lead and recruit IBM volunteers for Silver Surfers’ “taster” sessions at sheltered accommodations (the UK equivalent of a retirement community) throughout the UK during 2011.

“Somewhere between two and five IBM volunteers set up an open day in a common area at a shelter where the residents can come along and try out a computer and the Internet,” says Colin describing a typical taster session. “For some it’s the first time they have touched a keyboard.”

The tasks may seem like floating in the children’s pool for everyday users of the Internet, but for an older new surfer, it can seem like a riding a tidal wave. “We start with general things like email, online shopping and Skype,” Colin says. “But they quickly see the value and move on to other interests like pricing precious plates or researching military history. The beauty is that pretty much everyone can find something they are interested in.”

According to Colin, “We envisage an empowered older community who will be part of the digital revolution contributing to society in ways they could not imagine—not only to learn of the latest developments but to share their thoughts and experiences with the world.” He adds, “A Smarter Planet needs our seniors to be connected. Those who are frequently isolated will be able to stay in touch with friends and family, and lead more fulfilled lives.”

IT Volunteer of the Year—proud, happy and immensely satisfied

Through September, 2011, more than 150 volunteers from across IBM in the UK have participated in 35 sessions with another 30 scheduled before the end of the year. The simple aim is to help as many older people get online as possible. An IBM Catalyst Grant supported purchasing technology for the housing arrangements where some of the Silver Surfers’ sessions are being conducted.

Colin recalls a favorite story from one of his sessions: “A grandfather hadn't seen his grandchildren in a number of years because of a disagreement with his son. By visiting one of the social media sites, the grandfather was able to see pictures of them and he reached out to contact them.”

However, at times volunteering can also have little hidden dangers. “I remember being clipped round the ear by a 93 year old lady for eating too much cake,” says Colin with a laugh. “Seriously, for me when that chance to make someone happier is realized, it gives me a great sense of satisfaction and pride in my volunteers, and makes me feel proud, happy and immensely satisfied.”

In addition to volunteering with IBM, Colin also leads a team in southwest Scotland with IT Can Help (ITCH) which helps disabled people with IT problems. He also volunteers with the Volunteer Tutor Organization (VTO) which provides tutors to underprivileged children in Glasgow. In 2011, Technology4Good named Colin its “IT Volunteer of the Year” for his work with Digital Unite.

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.