Technology Classes Keeping the “90-Plus Crowd” Young During Social Distancing
By Lindsay Peyton
When stay-at-home became the new normal and almost everything switched online – a group of seniors at Blueridge UMC, Houston were already well prepared. They had recently enrolled in a “Lifelong Learning” course at Houston Community College (HCC), a program that encourages continuing education at any age. The course was designed to improve their keyboard skills. Little did they know that typing faster and embracing technology would prove to be so handy.
Rev. Romonica Malone-Wardley, who serves Blueridge UMC in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood, said that health and education have become top priorities at the congregation recently. “We started by doing an internal assessment of the resources we have inside the church,” she said. “We reached out to the community and internally to the church.”
In order to be a strong church, to minister, develop fellowship and serve others, Malone-Wardley said members have to be healthy. “We need to take care of ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually,” she said.
She was searching for a way to check those boxes for elderly members of the church, when Londa Singleton, co-chair of Blueridge UMC Council on Ministries, proposed an idea.
Singleton heard that HCC was offering Lifelong Learning courses. “They have free tuition for ages 65 and above, and 50 percent off for those 55 to 64-years old,” she said. “It keeps their brains going and gives them something to do together.”
Trying something new – like challenging themselves to get better with technology – helps neurons keep firing, she added. “They’re also learning something that helps them communicate better with family and friends.”
Pastor Malone-Wardley wanted just that for the senior members of the church. “We really do believe that learning is a lifelong process,” she said. “We wanted to offer something mentally and physically stimulating. This was a way to learn something new, which can boost mental health.”
The pastor added that seniors too often become isolated. This course would provide a way to battle that. “This would help them feel a sense of camaraderie,” she said. “We want to promote community beyond worship.”
Singleton brought the idea up at the Tuesday morning Bible study group she teaches. “We’d been talking about how retirement is not in the Bible,” she said. “We’re still supposed to be working for the Lord.”
This class, she pointed out, could help seniors hone their skills. Immediately, seven participants signed up.
“They jumped on it,” Malone-Wardley said.
Blueridge member Charles Mills, 99, was part of the group. “I happened to be the oldest,” he said. “I wanted to learn more about keyboarding, to see if I could increase my speed. I got tired of the peck, peck, peck.”
Mills explained that he still works for the American Merchant Marine Veterans and the American Legion as a WWII vet. “That requires quite a bit of correspondence,” he said.
He enjoys the class, which is held nearby at the HCC Willie Gay-South Campus and led by instructor DiAnn Robinson. “It’s been a good class, and we have a lovely instructor,” he said. “She’s been very helpful.”
Mills said that coursework is continuing through June but has moved online. “The class is all on the computer,” he said. “We go to the website and practice.”
The group’s newly enhanced skills came in handy when BUMC moved worship online and Bible study to Zoom meetings, Mills added.
Malone-Wardley said she was pleasantly surprised to see the seniors show up on the church’s Zoom videoconferencing calls.
“What we didn’t realize was that not long after they started the class, we’d be in social distancing,” she said. “We’d have to worship virtually and meet on Zoom. The seniors were some of the first to come to that group.”
Mills is a prime example, she added. “He said to me that he was so excited about the technology that allows us to still gather, even though we can’t be there physically,” she said.
London Wilson, Sr., a 94-year old WWII veteran, is another regular attendant. Malone-Wardley said that Wilson and Mills have helped other seniors join the Zoom sessions.
At Blueridge, there are also phone options for seniors, but seeing their faces on video technology has been especially meaningful to the pastor.
“The opportunity to use technology with them has been awesome,” she said. “They’ve been calling around and helping each other. It’s amazing to see how technology is bringing us closer. We get to laugh together and just praise God together.”
Mills is also grateful for gaining the knowledge to use new technology. “The brain needs exercising, and I don’t want to lose what I have,” he said. ‘It’s very good for people to stay involved. It keeps you active -- and being active has an effect on the whole body.”
He said that Malone-Wardley encourages them to stay engaged. “Our pastor is very proud of the whole group,” he said.
Senior members at church are especially important, Malone-Wardley said. “We learn so much from each other,” she said. “This helps our seniors stay young and feel important – which they are. That’s the culture we want to promote here at church, that everyone is important and plays a part. Everyone has something to offer.”
Singleton agreed – and said that becoming more capable on the computer and cellphone helps seniors as the continue to make disciples. “God doesn’t ask us to do a lot of big stuff. He asks us to work right where you are,” she said. “If you are on this side of Heaven, there’s more work He wants you to do. You’re not too old to still bring people to God.”
The senior members at Blueridge continue to inspire Singleton. “I grew up around older people, and that’s where I found wisdom, my sense of right and wrong, my stamina,” she said. “My elders continued to work, to be productive, to be loving.”
Respecting elders is foundational at the church, Singleton added. ‘They have an important legacy to learn from,” she said. “They have something to say. They’ve been through it before.”
And they know that the Lord will help you through. “Even if He doesn’t bring you through the same way, you’re not there by yourself,” Singleton said.