Grandma discovered emoji.
And now reading texts from her is like decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics.
“Puppy, kitten, heart, heart, thumbs-up, hockey stick, sunshine, heart, book, tulip, heart!” she sent to my 12-year-old son.
“What happened to English, Mom?” I queried.
“I asked the boys how the pets are, how their hockey game was and reminded them to study,” she explained. “They understand.”
Actually, they do. And in that simple act — being able to text like them — my mom has an immediate and daily connection to her grandkids. In the senior world, that makes her a digital ninja.
But she is not a typical 70-year-old. And not everyone has a patient Verizon store guy to come to the rescue.
Realizing that, three teenagers from D.C.-area high schools hit on something vital they could do to make a difference.
“We all have experiences with elderly people who are having a hard time understanding apps or texting or something (that) we always knew how to do because our generation has always been around this stuff,” said Hannah Docter-Loeb, 17, a junior at D.C.’s School Without Walls High School and the digital oracle in her household.
She and her friends have knowledge. They have skills. They could help.
So they called around to various organizations that hold computer training classes, but nothing was as flexible, simple and targeted toward grandparents as they wanted. So they started their own thing: GTG Tech.
The GTG stands for Generation to Generation. Grandkids to Grandparents. Giving the Gift.
GTG Tech is three 17-year-old girls. There’s Hannah plus Kaela Marcus-Kurn and Aviah Krupnick. And they hold training sessions at libraries, senior centers and community halls once a month. It’s a nonprofit group that’s growing as their friends join in to help.
But it’s not like they’re trained computer experts, the girls reminded me. They’re working on the simple, everyday tasks that digital natives take for granted.
“We just grew up in this, so we know how to do it,” said Kaela, a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. “And since I’ve started doing this, I’ve become a lot more patient with people. This is like a whole new language, a whole new vocabulary for them.”
The majority of retirees seeking their help are women.
They had an 80-year-old who just wanted to figure out how to text her boyfriend while he was on Cape Cod. There was a senior who threw a computer into the trash when it got a virus. Another showed up with the giant box monitor, tower and keyboard on a luggage rack to learn how to send group emails. And there was a woman who didn’t understand why her new Apple laptop wasn’t connecting to the outside world.
“They told me how to fix it. Oh, let me check my notes here,” said the 87-year-old, flipping through her legal pad. “Wi-Fi! That’s it! I needed Wi-Fi!”
The kids keep a document highlighting the most serious problems they’ve come across.
“Some of them are really sad, actually,” Hannah said. “Like the ones where they just click on these scams and end up losing money. That’s when we know we’re helping.”
But there is also something magical about the formula, the intergenerational exchange that happens when young and old interact, especially when they aren’t related.
“It’s like a blood transfusion. It’s about more than computers,” said Renee Dunham, 78, after the teens helped her with text messaging. “I learn a little bit about their lives. How they organize their lives, their phones. What they’re listening to or what tech they’re using.”
And, Dunham observed, it came with no strings attached. No long debates with her granddaughter about hair and makeup, no reminders to tell her grandson not to slouch.
“Like you can’t teach a family member to drive. That never works,” Dunham said.
But the exchange goes both ways.
Although it might be easy to make fun of Grandpa when he brings in his three maxed-out Hotmail accounts and isn’t sure how to delete emails, the teens have learned that he was once a hottie who flew warplanes. Or the lady walking with a cane used to be a ballet dancer.
On a recent Saturday at the library, every GTG Tech slot was full. And for three hours, the teens gave digital advice to many interesting seniors: a retired linguistics professor, a pioneer FORTRAN programmer, a former wire service reporter. They also met Evelyn Idelson, a 91-year-old who remembered working at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when the federal government rolled in the first computers that took up an entire room.
Funny how a computer that fits in the palm of your hand can now feel intimidating.
The teens helped the folks connect with their grandkids, their friends and their shopping accounts. They transferred historic photos and old wedding pictures from computers to emails. They hooked people up with Twitter handles — they’re not going to let President Trump dominate the over-70 Twitterverse, no way. They helped seniors build Facebook pages and showed them how to use FaceTime (hold the phone in front of your face, not against your ear).
And yes, they covered emoji, too.