ST. LOUIS —The St. Louis Monsanto YMCA is a place where elders get up in the morning. It has the largest population of participating African American seniors of any YMCA in the country.
Walk into the gym and a 92-year-old African American woman is leading a chair aerobics class to a high-energy rhythm faster than you’ll hear in most regular aerobics classes. She doesn’t skip a beat. Walk into the coffee room and almost every seat has been taken by women playing cards or chatting about their classes. Among them is a water aerobics instructor — who is also in her 90s.
“We call this our country club,” said Mildred Boyd, 81, community organizer for the YMCA.
But at this country club, elders are learning new tricks — and sometimes those new skills are landing them jobs they need to supplement their Social Security.
Waiting list for classes
Among the biggest attractions at the “country club” are the computer classes for seniors, said Boyd, who coordinates the classes and leads some.
Boyd has a waiting list to get into the instructional sessions on Microsoft programs and the Internet, but information-hungry learners would rather watch and listen than wait for a regular slot to open up.
On a Friday morning this winter, Boyd looked at the 10 African American women, who stationed themselves at the computers — a few of them nearing 90.
“I’ll tell you something cute,” she said. “I came in this morning and read the roll, and I told them, ‘Not one of you is registered for this class.’ ”
As the registered students filtered in, the class crashers had to give up their seats and sit in chairs near the computers to follow along.
“We’re a big lab family,” Boyd said. “We’re not going to run anyone away.”
Octogenarian computer instructor
Boyd retired in 2001 from a career at MERS/Missouri Goodwill Industries where she facilitated job training and employment. But she didn’t stay retired for long. When she joined the YMCA as a retiree in 2002, they mentioned that they were looking for help with their Welfare-to-Work program.
“So I joined part of the employment team,” Boyd said with a laugh.
The seniors kept telling her that they wanted computer classes.
The Monsanto YMCA elders were not alone in their growing interest for computers. Computer use among Americans 65 and older has doubled in the past 10 years, while Internet usage among that age group has more than tripled, according to a 2010 Pew Internet Project report.
In 2004, Boyd asked the YMCA’s executive director if she could get a computer program started. However, soon after the program got up and going, the woman in charge of the classes — Boyd’s boss — left her position.
Boyd couldn’t let down the eager learners, so she held onto the classes by teaching them herself. Thankfully someone came to her rescue — a representative from the OASIS Institute, a national nonprofit that provides educational and volunteer opportunities to seniors. In 2011, nationwide enrollment in OASIS technology classes topped 7,700 in 90 locations.
Partnering with OASIS
Boyd worked with OASIS to come up with a program, which is similar to their programs in several other locations around St. Louis.
“She was doing it all on her own,” said Sharon Hales, community outreach manager for OASIS. “We were able to provide her with evidence-based curriculum,” she said.
Now Boyd organizes the classes, and every once in a while, when the teacher can’t make it, she will step in and teach what she knows.
One of the students, Minnie Hall, 88, started taking classes last fall. Recently, she bought herself a computer so she could practice at home.
“I love to try to learn things, and the computer has so many things you would never dream of,” she said. “You don’t get too old to learn, but it’s a slow process.”
As often happens when people face a steep learning curve together, the computer students have bonded.
Last December, the students pulled together funds to throw a holiday party for the teachers. Many have already taken every class available, and they are now starting to take them all again. However, many, including Hall, just pop in unexpectedly whenever they are in the area.
“I enjoy seeing the elderly ladies try to learn,” she said. “It’s the most beautiful thing. As you get older you forget it. They are so sweet to you here.”
From learning to working
While the program started off as a way to connect seniors with their families and technology, it has expanded quite a bit.
As more and more seniors are giving up their retirement time to get back in the workforce, Boyd and OASIS have responded by offering tailored job training skills, Hales said.
AT&T, which sponsors the YMCA’s program, is aware of this trend and encourages the organization to offer computer classes that would help.
“We all know you don’t just walk in and ask for an application anymore,” Hales said. “More often you fill them out online. We have refocused our program so if you want to go back to work, we can help you do that.”
The program helped Patricia Young, 73, who recently obtained a position with Cardinal Ritter High School.
When Young started at the YMCA, she didn’t know anything about computers, she said. As a retired dental assistant, Young said her money from Social Security is not paying the bills.
Young spoke highly of her OASIS teachers. They took her from not knowing how to turn on a computer to feeling comfortable with the various programs, she explained.
“Now I feel I can go out and use those skills,” Young said. “I need to work to help pay these bills. Most jobs you get, they want you to be able to work a computer. This is something I can use and something I really want to do.”
Rebecca Rivas is part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. This is the first article in an ongoing series about how new technology is helping African American seniors in social networking, health, community action and small business.