Joyce Long isn’t asking for all that much.
“I want to use this (tablet) for communication,” she said, as she waited for a recent Project Connect class to begin at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church.
Long, 88, with glasses, a mask to protect her from COVID-19 and a blue baseball cap obscuring much of her face, was hoping to get competent on Zoom so she can visit with relatives and keep connected to church when she can’t be there personally.
She was in the third week of a four-week program teaching her to use a tablet.
“When they offered it, I signed up,” Long said. “Whatever I can learn will be more than I knew because I didn’t know anything.”
Gordon Memorial is using a $7,000 grant from United Methodist Discipleship Ministries to fund Project Connect.
“The idea came about because many people were not being able to tune into the worship experience when COVID hit,” said Julius Witherspoon, a Gordon Memorial member and project manager for Project Connect. “We had to shut down the church for over a year.”
The church and its Best Years Club are important social connections for many seniors in the church and surrounding neighborhood in general, Witherspoon said. The technology classes are limited to 10-12 students because of COVID-19 precautions, so the seniors are taking the classes in shifts.
The sessions began with instruction in using cell phones better.
“I think we did that for two weeks,” said Marie Dunkerson, who runs the Best Years Club. “Then we started on the computers.”
Best Years Club member Mary Jones, 82, wants to be better prepared when asked to type her information in at the doctor’s office and elsewhere.
“Not knowing is frustrating when you go somewhere and they say, ‘Well use this and use that,’ the latest technology or whatever you want to call it,” she said. “I’m unaware how to do it, so at least I’m trying to learn.”
CGI, an information technology company, is providing instructors to Project Connect. Tennessee State University and Fisk University students are also helping.
Before COVID-19, the whole Best Years Club — about 50-60 people — met in person each Wednesday for senior socialization, Dunkerson said.
“We’d serve a hot meal. We’d play games; we had exercise. We had a spiritual speaker,” she said.
When COVID-19 struck, the whole program had to be rethought.
“During the summer, I had volunteers deliver meals to their homes, box meals,” Dunkerson said. “On special occasions like Valentine's (Day), we have goody bags.”
The seniors prefer practical items such as cleaning solutions, toilet paper and paper towels in the goody bags because many of them don’t get to the grocery store very often.
“And then we’d put like a little something special in, candy or something like that,” Dunkerson said. “So we did that in 2020, then it continued into 2021.”
One of the top requests of seniors was instruction in using cell phones and computers, she said.
As the pandemic seemed to ease a bit, it was decided to do the classes in person, to get folks out of their homes at least once a week. The church offers transportation to those who don’t have their own.
“You don’t realize how important it is for people who don’t drive and live in a sheltered situation to get out,” Dunkerson said. “It messes with your head.”
The meetings are also an opportunity to serve seniors snacks, a hot meal and send them home with fresh vegetables.
“Today we have sweet potatoes,” Dunkerson said. “Sometimes we have squash, tomatoes, whatever. That’s a vegetable they don’t have to buy, and a lot of times they don’t go to the store often enough to buy fresh stuff.”
A church member who supported the Best Years Club submitted a grant request to Discipleship Ministries. It was approved, which allowed the purchase of tablets for the class.
“We want to make sure that it’s not (just) a free tablet program,” Witherspoon said. “We want you to learn. They’ll get to keep the tablet after the three or four lessons, so they will become familiar with it.”
Dunkerson, 77, moved to Nashville to be near her daughter after retiring from her nursing career in Milwaukee.
“I was looking for something to do and I got involved in this and have been hooked ever since,” she said. “When you start something, you find out what you can do. … If you just sit at home on your couch and watch TV and not get involved in what is really going on, the world passes you by.”