NOEL KING, HOST:
Senior citizens in this country are generally healthier than they've ever been, but they risk being isolated if they can't use digital technology. A company in New Mexico is taking that seriously. It's setting up teenagers with older folks to teach them, and it turns out they are all learning something from each other.
Megan Kamerick is a reporter with member station KUNM in Albuquerque.
MEGAN KAMERICK, BYLINE: Seventy-six-year-old Camilla Dorcey is calling a friend on her smartphone - something that not long ago was beyond her.
CAMILLA DORCEY: People would be ringing me and I didn't know how to answer it. I'd be crying and frustrated and feeling totally useless and old.
KAMERICK: A retired teacher from Lesotho, Africa, Dorcey lived all over the world before moving to Albuquerque with her second husband. When he died suddenly, she was left alone and isolated, too ashamed to admit she didn't know how to answer her new phone.
DORCEY: That's how I felt - stupid and dumb, and wishing I wasn't here, feeling I had lived far too long.
KAMERICK: That kind of social isolation leaves seniors vulnerable to poor health and earlier death. It's also expensive. A study by AARP found isolation is associated with nearly $7 billion in additional spending by Medicare annually. Dorcey tried to get help at stores and failed.
DORCEY: I hate that phrase - a child could do this, but they never gave me a child.
KAMERICK: Dorcey is among the 4 in 10 seniors who own smartphones, according to a study by the Pew Research Center which also found seniors often lack confidence in learning and using them. Dorcey didn't find a child, but she did turn to a teenager who helped her download WhatsApp. Now she talks to family and friends regularly in Africa and Europe for free.
DORCEY: Hey, Peter (ph).
PETER: Hello, Camilla.
DORCEY: Happy New Year to you.
PETER: Happy New Year to you.
DORCEY: Oh, it's amazing. I can see them. I can talk to them. It's really been great. I feel free again.
KAMERICK: The teenager who helped Dorcey was Tess Reynolds, who's 17. She works for a small business called Teeniors that matches tech-savvy teens like her with seniors like Dorcey. Reynolds says she can relate to seniors because she has a learning disability, and people used to rush her when she was trying to do schoolwork.
TESS REYNOLDS: So I know how it feels to be rushed, so I want to make sure that that doesn't happen.
KAMERICK: It also convinced her she wants to become a senior home health aide. That mutual learning and support is what makes Teeniors successful, says founder Trish Lopez.
TRISH LOPEZ: And that's why I always say the main service we provide is not tech support, it is human connection.
KAMERICK: Her inspiration to launch the company in 2015 was her mom. Lopez always wished she could send someone to help when her mom called with technology problems. Teeniors has served more than 3,000 seniors around New Mexico, mostly in community centers like this one south of Albuquerque.
KENDRA GONZALES: So then you would hit save. Right.
LINDA HAVERTY: So now - oh, wonderful. Oh, there you are.
KAMERICK: Kendra Gonzales, who's 21, joined Teeniors four years ago. It helped her land jobs and decide on a career in public service. She's working toward a criminal justice degree. Through Teeniors, she learned skills like public speaking and coaching.
GONZALES: Things that I don't think the school system helped me with. This has helped me more in a great way.
KAMERICK: Teeniors founder Trish Lopez says participants gain tech skills, but also emotional intelligence, problem solving and communication abilities. Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, says variations of this model exist around the country. Executive director Donna Butts says, since America's older generation is disproportionately white compared to the younger population, there are real risks to age-based segregation.
DONNA BUTTS: And that can be really, really harmful when we have generations that don't look like each other. They don't know each other, and they don't understand why they need to invest in each other.
KAMERICK: She says intergenerational programs can overcome those barriers. That was certainly true for Camilla Dorcey.
DORCEY: I think maybe Teeniors are seeing old people as not totally ready to be put in the grave. And for me, it's making me think teenagers should not all be in jail. We're beginning to see a connection between humans of a different age.
KAMERICK: For NPR News, I'm Megan Kamerick in Albuquerque.
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