When Tony Lazzaro, Beth Micek and Jeanne Merritt join their friends from Lifespan Atlanta on a morning Zoom videoconference to share coffee and conversation, it’s their opportunity to share what’s happening in their lives before they scatter in cyberspace for the rest of the day’s activities. It’s all been made possible by Lifespan Resources Atlanta and the dedication of its executive director, Peggy Palmiter.

For seniors driven inside and mostly confined to a solitary existence by the COVID-19 pandemic, morning Zoom gatherings and a variety of online classes – including those taught by Peggy on using technology – have been a lifesaver. All three made the characterization in unison during – what else? – a Zoom conference.

Lifespan, a nonprofit, was established in Atlanta in 1981 as a physical space for seniors to gather to talk and learn together. Headquartered in Buckhead, it later joined forces with Agape, a non-profit whose core mission is serving disadvantaged children in south Fulton with educational programs.

Lifespan began providing technology education to their small senior program called Ragtime. Whether in person or online, Lifespan promotes lifelong learning, something to which I’ve always ascribed as a fellow senior who wants to maintain my vigor.

When the pandemic hit a year ago, Lifespan’s client rolls dropped from a peak of 85 between Lifespan and Agape to about 40 (30 in online classes and 10 at Agape Zoom classes), but Palmiter embraced a new online strategy to fulfill Lifespan Resources’ mission to build communities that welcome seniors as they age. To make the strategy a success, she drew on her 15 years of experience in teaching seniors how to use technology.

“March 7, 2020, was our last in-person gathering,” she said. “We spent the next month trying to get people connected online.”

[Full disclosure: I work with Lifespan to meet their clients’ technology hardware needs. I got involved by finding the required hardware, mostly refurbished laptop computers. The acquisitions were made possible by an extensive fund-raising effort to help those who couldn’t afford new or suitable technology.]

Getting suitable hardware for her clients was necessary to train the seniors to get them online.

“Older people tend to hang onto their equipment longer because it does the job and they don’t want to change,” she said. “But connecting to the internet for more than email or web browsing required a certain level of capability by a computer or a tablet. For those who could afford it, we found a source of refurbished laptops that had been used for business and we got tablets: iPads for those who could afford them and Samsung tablets for others.”

Once she got the hardware, Palmiter loaded the required application software and formatted the devices for Zoom and Gmail accounts.

“We found that was the best way to get them started,” she noted. “We were able – and still are able – to use Splashtop, an application that enables us to work their devices remotely and show them how to get on a Zoom conference. We can do it as many times as they need it, and for some people, it’s like starting from scratch every Monday morning.”

With the right equipment and tools, Palmiter can do what does best: teach each person technology individually at his or her own level.

“Seniors have a resiliency they didn’t know they had,” she said. “There is fear or a sense of belief that getting online is a huge barrier to get over, but we can get them over that. I know how to talk to them about technology and how to adapt to their fears and capabilities. That’s something their grandchildren or children either can’t do or don’t have the patience to do.”

Indeed, that was the problem Jeanne Merritt faced. Technology wasn’t foreign to her, but in the 31 years since she retired as a medical technologist for a lab, she was “stuck” with email. She got a new computer, but three people couldn’t help her get set up until she worked with Palmiter to get her system issues solved and get on track with Zoom.

“After getting Zoom, I was able to expand my contact with other people,” Merritt said. “I’m able to visit with friends in England, although we mostly use Skype instead of Zoom.”

Tony Lazzaro calls Merritt his hero and inspiration for using Zoom to stay in touch with others and to take Lifespan’s online courses.

“Being online prevents loneliness,” he said. “I’m by myself. I’ve had technology in my life and could always do things on a computer, but with Peggy and Lifespan, I can always ask technical questions and overcome any problems with adapting.”

Beth Micek, who taught college math for eight years and then spent the rest of her career as a systems analyst for mainframe computers, has used Lifespan to adapt to laptop computing. “Mainframes are a totally different world,” she said, “but Peggy held my hand to learn how to do what I needed, and we got my sister into Zoom, too.”

Handholding is the key. With everyone’s stick-to-itiveness, Palmiter is able to guide groups through their in-session difficulties during a Zoom session, regardless of whether they’re using a computer, iPad or Samsung tablet or an iPhone or Android-based phone.

“The need to connect has motivated seniors to get online,” she said. “They’re desperate to know technology to avoid isolation and depression. Even though it can take up to six weeks to get some people really going, they’re willing to tolerate all the glitches to do it. We even have a group of 10 people who meet online to play Bingo on their tablets.”

But more than just visiting and playing games, Lifespan’s clients are using technology to take a variety of courses or view presentations and movies online. This winter’s classes have included both Windows and Apple technology taught by Palmiter, a 30-part presentation on the U.S. National Parks, a course about the BeltLine and instruction on Tai Chi and line dancing. There’s also a series on classic movies.

While lifespan has offered other services, the educational program has always been its core mission. Classes are open to any older adult over 55 without a membership requirement.  The cost for an eight-week class session is $50 for a single class, $59 for any and all non-activity classes during the session, and $84 for any class, anytime during the eight weeks.

Classes used to be held every Thursday for eight weeks.  Now that we are virtual on Zoom, classes are scheduled throughout the week.  Visit lifespanatlanra.org for all the details.

Tony and Jeanne both applaud the online learning classes, and Beth has used her newly discovered online skills to participate with her family in a product called StoryWorth, in which people are asked to answer a weekly question and then build a book online during the year. She collaborates with her sister online, and this helps keep their memories sharp. At the end of the year, they can purchase a printed version of their books.

“We haven’t stopped learning,” Tony said.

“Their willingness to keep on trying helps their mental acuity,” Palmiter said.

That’s why Lifespan’s fans say Palmiter and Lifespan Resources have thrown them a digital lifesaver.

For more: lifespanatlanta.org or 404-237-7307

Gene Rubel

Gene Rubel is a tech consultant and writer based in Sandy Springs.