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Connected Canadians: “Digital literacy is a human right,” says Ottawa-based NGO

By Barbara Popel on July 24, 2020

You often hear that the pandemic has changed everything. It has certainly changed people’s attitudes about seniors using technology, according to Emily Jones Joanisse, the CEO of Connected Canadians.

Before COVID-19, many thought being able to use a computer was just a “nice to have” for well-to-do, well-educated seniors. Now, people understand that everyone needs this asset, including all seniors.

Connected Canadians (CC) is an Ottawa-based non-profit organization founded in 2018 by Emily Jones Joanisse and Tasneem Damen (Damen is the CIO). Over 70 volunteers—mostly “techies”—work for CC, enabling older adults to be empowered digital citizens. Because they believe digital literacy is a human right, CC provides all their services free of charge.

Before the pandemic, most of CC’s delivery was in person: either one-on-one sessions between a senior and a mentor, or training sessions for community groups such as seniors’ centres, who would then coach the seniors who are their clients.

They had a remote program on the back burner, prototyping it, mostly with people who were far away so they couldn’t be reached physically. It was used as a last resort. Then the pandemic struck, and CC had to figure out how to deliver all of its services remotely.

Jones Joanisse said that, from a volunteering perspective, this wasn’t a stretch because most CC volunteers work in high tech and are very familiar with using online tools to get work done. But for the seniors, it took a shift to make them feel comfortable. However, seniors who previously would never have wanted to receive help over the phone suddenly became a lot more open to it. CC came up with new ways of engaging them, including a social gaming program, as well as doing all of of its mentoring and technical support remotely.

Connected Canadians in action. Photo: Emily Jones Joanisse.

Jones Joanisse and Damen also realized that a lot of seniors didn’t have computer equipment available to them. They needed computers for things like ordering groceries and attending church services remotely, as well as for communicating with loved ones. So CC started a tablet lending program. The tablets are custom-configured devices with appropriate software—no setup required.

After piloting a small lending program using community donations of Apple tablets, they partnered with HelpAge Canada. The expanded lending program is called “Seniors Can Connect!” So far, SCC! has lent out 30 custom-configured Apple tablets. Local community partners (LCPs) such as long-term care homes, community resource centres, and seniors’ agencies can all participate in this program. Once funding is in place, the program will be available across Canada.

Before the pandemic, CC was already partnering with a lot of LCPs, but this has increased a great deal since the pandemic started. Participating LCPs include Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital, Montfort Hospital, Ottawa Community Housing, Somerset West Community Health Centre, Olde Forge Community Resource Centre, and Hillel Lodge. Damen estimates their client base has doubled.

Jones Joanisse said that in hospitals, the patients usually have access to tablets, but with the lockdown, their families sometimes need CC’s assistance to be able to communicate virtually with their loved ones. In addition, a lot of LCPs have volunteers who are seniors, and, because there’s now so much reliance on virtual communications, these volunteers themselves needed some basic computer skills like Zoom and WebEx.

In hospitals, the patients usually have access to tablets, but with the lockdown, their families sometimes need CC’s assistance to be able to communicate virtually with their loved ones.

One of the intriguing things Apt613 learned about was CC’s social gaming program: It’s a form of Pictionary, a good vehicle for social interaction that can appeal to all age groups. Everyone can see and talk to one another.

CC started doing sessions with existing clients. It was generally a good experience, except that first-time users would take 15 to 20 minutes to get comfortable and competent with the tools. So Jones Joanisse said to Damen, “We’ve got all these wonderful software developers on our team who are volunteering with us, and you yourself are a software architect. Can’t we just build our own game that’s better?”

So under Damen’s guidance, she and some volunteers (including one from Vancouver) have built a functioning browser-based prototype. They tested it with women from across Canada and even in Italy. Now, Damen says they need to scale it so there can be multiple simultaneous gaming sessions. She’s looking for a volunteer with experience in Golang/Redis to complete this work.

Jones Joanisse also recruited 20 technology mentors from a very unusual source: She’s been working as a deejay for 16 years, so she knows lots of people in Ottawa’s hospitality industry. Many of them lost their jobs when the pandemic hit. And it occurred to her that these people have great interpersonal skills, so what if CC trained them to become mentors for seniors? With funds from a City of Ottawa Economic Development grant, Connected Canadians started a new program to retrain service industry mentors to serve isolated seniors. She started with staff from Social restaurant, but now they’re coming from other restaurants and bars as well.

These mentors get two weeks of training before they start mentoring seniors. Some of them even help train others from the hospitality industry. CC has received enthusiastic feedback, and it looks as if even the resumption of indoor dining and bar service in Ottawa won’t draw these mentors away from CC.

“Once they’re online, there’s a whole world out there that we can give them access to.”

“Clearly, we have to get people connected first and figure out their basic needs and make sure they can function online. But then, once they’re online, there’s a whole world out there that we can give them access to,” Jones Joanisse said.

Connected Canadians’ motto is “Connecting older adults with technology, training, and support.” But I can see that it’s so much more.

Visit the Connected Canadians website to learn more about their programs. Read all about Seniors Can Connect! in partnership with HelpAge Canada.