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Friday, May 24, 2024

UC Davis’ Breaking Barriers helps elders feel part of the local community

Club officers share stories about teaching technology to seniors and learning from them in the process

 

By SABRINA FIGUEROA — features@theaggie.org 

 

When we think about elders, chances are we think their wisdom is endless. As a younger generation, we will never live through their life experiences, but this is true in reverse too — they can learn from us as much as we can learn from them.

Technology, for example, is something that the younger generation has either grown up with or adapted to, but some elders have not. With instances like these, both young and older generations can learn from each other. 

Breaking Barriers, a student organization at UC Davis established in 2020, aims to help bridge the technology gap between young and older adults while also establishing friendships and reducing loneliness for elders in the local community. 

“Our mission is to make sure we can get their questions answered about […] how to use their devices or doing new things,” Avantika Gokulnatha, the president of Breaking Barriers and third-year genetics and genomics major, said. “We want to make sure these older adults feel remembered, a part of the community and not so left behind by society.” 

The organization got their start during the COVID-19 shutdowns and shared exactly how it directly influenced their mission and goal of helping the elderly. 

“During the pandemic, all interpersonal connections became online through technology, and that excluded a lot of older adults who aren’t as technology savvy,” Gokulnatha said. “A lot of the older adults who didn’t really keep up with using phones or FaceTime got left behind during this time.” 

Gokulnatha also explained that the club was established during the lockdowns because they were finally able to grasp how large the technology gap was in our society. 

“Us as young people may not see [the isolation of elders], because we’re in school and we don’t really interact with people of other ages,” Gokulnatha said. “We don’t really understand how if we didn’t grow up with watching TV or using our phones, it would be really hard to get oriented to this rapidly changing world.”

Although the pandemic lockdowns gave them clarity and a new cause to advocate for, it also brought on challenges.

Katherine Ama, the internal vice president of Breaking Barriers and fourth-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major, said that they weren’t initially allowed to volunteer at senior facilities in the Davis area. 

“Because elders are highly at risk of contracting COVID-19, the senior facilities’ lockdowns in Davis didn’t allow anyone from outside the facility to enter,” Ama said. 

However, now the organization is able to visit Davis nursing and senior facilities such as Atria Covell Gardens and Carlton Senior Living. They visit and provide similar services in the Sacramento area as well.

In addition to visiting, Breaking Barriers also employs different ways to connect with the elders. This includes volunteers being matched up with senior participants as pen pals, as well as technology tutoring and workshops where volunteers teach seniors new skills that will be useful to them for connecting with others online and for the workforce.

“When we do one-on-one tutoring, it’s usually older adults who are trying to learn technology skills that will help them out in the workforce,” Gokulnatha said. “So, like, learning Excel, PowerPoint or things like that. Anything that’s more specifically geared toward the workforce because these are the new skills that you need to know.”

Michelle Chan, the external vice president of Breaking Barriers and second-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major, shared that since not every facility visit is structured around teaching technology, sometimes it’s more about connecting in real time. 

“For visits where we go to nursing homes, a lot of times those older adults are diagnosed with conditions,” Chan said. “So, their main goal isn’t really to learn about technology. Our volunteers focus on accompanying them, talking to them and bridging that social connection. The point is to get them talking to college students. A lot of them are interested in what we’re doing as well, because it reminds them of themselves when they were younger.” 

Volunteering for an organization that aims to connect generations creates a rewarding experience and reminds you that it’s all worth it, according to club members. Gokulnatha discussed her grateful connection to one of their senior participants, Jack — a big supporter of the Breaking Barriers club. 

“He’s a Black man, and he grew up in Texas,” Gokulnatha said. “He grew up during the entire segregation and desegregation events, became the first in his family to attend college, and he tells wonderful stories about himself. I think one of the most valuable things, for me, in understanding generational culture is how we can learn from people who lived in different time periods.”

The members also shared a story about a 93-year-old woman at one of the facilities they visited who went skydiving on her 90th birthday. 

“They are just such amazing people with such rich lives,” Gokulnatha said. “Once you have one person who wants to talk to you and cares about what you have to say, it really means the world to them, because they feel so forgotten.”

Ama also shared a memorable experience about the time she connected with a senior who was a writer — a playwright named Rick Foster — then later taught him how to write an email to help him practice his writing and contact his friends. 

“He would always start a sentence and then forget how to end it,” Ama said. “I could tell that he was really struggling, and he would say, ‘You probably think I’m so stupid,’ and it was really sad to hear him undervalue himself, because I learned later in the session that he had a masters in writing and a bachelors in math. I thought, ‘How could he say self-deprecating things like that? He was probably more articulate than me at my age!’”

Sometimes meaningful experiences occur during hard times — that was the case for Chan after her grandmother died, and she found comfort in a strong connection with an elderly woman named Millie. 

“Each of these individuals has such a full life that makes them who they are,” Chan said. “It’s so rare that we get to meet people that have so much wisdom and life experiences that [they] can share it with us. Talking to her made me see life in a different way. Channeling my energy into helping her and teaching her how to use technology also really helped me get over the sadness that I felt from losing my grandmother.”

Breaking Barriers is always looking for new members, no matter the quarter or time of year. If you’re interested in joining, they can be contacted through their Instagram, @breakingbarriersdavis, or email, breakingbarriersdavis@gmail.com. If their message resonates with you, that is all you need to be qualified.  

 

Written by: Sabrina Figueroa — features@theaggie.org

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