You don’t have to be a computer expert to become a Digital Inclusion Initiative (DII) peer coach—far from it. Sure, you need basic computer skills. But that’s almost secondary to having the life experience and wisdom that makes you the kind of person who can be a patient and understanding guide to older adults who have decided to change their lives by crossing the digital divide.
It also helps to be someone who understands self-reinvention as the years go by.
Patrick Carew’s first job was at 16, delivering newspapers in Milwaukee, Wis. After finishing high school, for 10 years he “worked out,” as he puts it, doing all kinds of jobs, including stints in electronics and plastics factories.
That lasted until the fumes of factory work got too much for Patrick’s allergies and asthma. Occupational counselors said Patrick needed healthier environments. Given his experience and aptitudes, it was suggested that Patrick switch to either clerical or computer work. Choosing computers, off he went for two years at a trade tech school.
That was about 40 years ago, when computers were main frames about the size of a room and personal computers didn’t exist. There was no guarantee that Patrick and computers would be a good fit.
But supervisors monitored my progress and they saw that I was dedicated and honest, he recalls.
They wanted me to continue and it turned out that I really did love the work. I liked computers and I was good at them.
And so Patrick, now 72, made computers his occupation, variously a programmer, lab supervisor, an instructor, even an entrepreneurial writer and seller of software packages. Throughout his work days in computers he had to continually cope with unexpected layoffs or the end of contracts. To compete, he had to constantly be updating his knowledge and skills to match the high tech industry’s ever-quickening pace.
In 2000, Patrick semi-retired when he finally conceded he wasn’t going to get money he needed to get a software package project off the ground. Five years later, he fully retired after his wife died. But looking at four walls didn’t last long for this working man.
A hospital volunteer job, which included clerical and computer duties, helped get Patrick through his mourning.
It occupied my mind so I wasn’t thinking of my wife’s death every minute, he recalls.
I was meeting new people, and it really helped me a lot.
By the time Patrick learned about the DII peer coach program at Senior Citizens Employment and Training, Inc. (SCET)—our subgrantee in Eau Claire, Wis.—he was happily re-partnered with a woman who too had lost her spouse. But that didn’t stop him from wanting to be occupied in the computer field yet again—this time as a guide across the digital divide. Carew estimates that between 60 and 70 percent of his new learners know nothing about computers when they begin their sessions with him.
Describing his DII coaching experience in an essay that took first place in a contest celebrating Older Americans Month (May), sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging, Patrick talked about what peer coaching means to him personally. He wrote that he
fully understands how totally new learners would be nervous at first.
But after attending sessions and getting some coaching from me, they can achieve their goals and learn to use the computer, he continued.
It gives me great joy to see how a learner coming into this program, knowing little or nothing about computers, can progress to being very comfortable with them—sending e-mail to their friends and families, as well as performing job searches online.
As Patrick’s new learners experience the thrill of acquiring new computer knowledge, many of his fellow older adults’ lives are transformed. Recognizing that these changes are, in turn, the fruit of his service to the community has made Patrick a “happier and more confident person,” he says. “I’m helping people enjoy the computer age by crossing the digital divide. That’s what this program was started for—to offer citizens of the community the chance not to be left behind.”