KEWASKUM, Wis. – Time has a strange way of marching on.
“I wouldn’t have the faintest idea where the metaverse is,” said 89-year-old Clarence Henkel, laughing. “I don’t know if that’s part of the universe or vice versa.”
You either keep up with the changes or you risk falling behind.
“When the phone rang,” recalled Mike Carney, who is 76. “You went to the phone, picked it up off the wall and said ‘Hello’.”
The latest and greatest of an era is obsolete in a matter of years.
“And it was rotating,” Mike continues. “If you wanted to dial it, it was ch-ch-ch-cht, ch-ch-ch-cht.”
“I heard it’s annoying,” says 16-year-old Mia Vetter. “Because my grandpa likes to talk about it.”
A different type of class is taking place at Kewaskum High School this fall.
“I was just telling this girl how we used to get off the couch and go upstairs and turn the little black and white TV on and off,” Mike said.
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It bridges the generation gap.
“Bunny ears?” said a confused Katelyn Scannell. ‘Perhaps during the Easter season? I do not know.”
Katelyn and Mia are both juniors at Kewaskum. But once a week, these students become teachers.
They volunteer to teach a technology class for seniors and work with Washington County’s Aging and Disability Resource Center.
“Because high school students are a lot smarter than me when it comes to technology,” ADRC Director Tammy Anderson said of why she organizes classes — not teaches them.
“I have no children, nieces or nephews,” said West Bend student Sandy Bohn. “So everything I learn, I have to get information from somewhere.”
The goal is to open the doors to a sometimes intimidating world.
“Every time I’ve touched her in the past,” Clarence said of smartphones. “They did something they shouldn’t do.”
There have been some bumps along the way in getting this pilot program off the ground.
“‘Good. Go to your messaging app,'” Mia said, recalling her first lesson. “And suddenly someone shouts, ‘What is an app?’ And so we both had to be taken back from it. ‘Oh, we’re so far behind.'”
In many ways, it’s like learning a new language.
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“Cookies?” Clarence said. “Well, tell you what, I’ve got some in my bag here.”
Like any good startup, the girls recalibrated on the fly — focusing on simple tasks like texting, emailing, and video calling, and even the most confusing of concepts — emojis.
“I had one person,” Mia said. “We went through every single emoji, which took some time.”
“He wanted to do the laughing and crying emoji,” Katelyn said of another encounter. “But he actually did the crying sad emoji. So his daughter probably thought he had a bad experience.”
While the tone of the class is light-hearted and self-deprecating, the reason for this is no laughing matter.
“There’s a movement right now that focuses on social isolation and loneliness,” explains Tammy.
Studies show that nearly a quarter of US adults age 65 and older are socially isolated, and such living greatly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes. There is a 50% increased risk of dementia and about a 30% increased risk of heart disease or stroke.
“If you just sit at home and get cobwebs on you, what’s the use?” said Mike. “I want to learn some of these things.”
Leave it to this former teacher to be the model student.
“The third door over there says it,” Mike continues, pointing to a sign in the classroom. “Never stop learning because life never stops teaching.”
“Some people always think technology is tearing us apart,” Katelyn said. “But when you look at it, it kind of brings us together.”
While many of these students are in their fall years, it’s never too late to turn over a new leaf.
Well, except for one issue.
“I heard about TikTok,” Clarence said. “But I don’t know anything about it.”
“Um, there’s always a way,” Katelyn said, laughing. “But I don’t know if it will be during the time This Meeting.”
Kewaskum hosted two different sessions this autumn, with the last class on November 29th. They plan to continue the program next year. In fact, there is already a waiting list.
ADRC organizers hope other schools will consider similar programs and share knowledge and experience across generations.