It’s a Good Thing: Vancouver nonprofit aims to alleviate seniors’ technological isolation

Gluu Technology Society teaches the elderly everything from how to organize photos to using a digital assistant.

Credit: iStock

Gluu Technology Society teaches the elderly everything from how to organize photos to using a digital assistant

Living in the Age of COVID has taught us different lessons. For some, it’s been a lesson in how to rethink the way we work; for others, it’s about learning to live in a world of heightened biosecurity. But surely the biggest lesson for us all—watching the horror show playing out in retirement homes and long-term care facilities across Canada—is that for far too long we’ve turned a blind eye to the pressing needs of our elders.

Even those seniors spared the ravages of the pandemic have suddenly found themselves cut off from society: unable to receive visitors in their homes and fearful about where the coronavirus might lurk. Those able to use technology to stay connected with loved ones have maintained some sense of togetherness during COVID, but those lacking digital devices—or the wherewithal to use them—have not, says Linda Fawcus, founder and CEO of the Gluu Technology Society: “My fear is that we’re going to lose thousands and thousands of people to isolation.”

Gluu—a five-year-old nonprofit that helps older adults develop essential digital skills—is run by Fawcus and two part-time staff from an office in West Vancouver. Prior to March, the Gluu team, along with 26 volunteer coaches, would meet seniors where they gathered, in retirement residences, community centres and private clubs across the Lower Mainland. They would teach seniors some of the basics of their digital devices, including how to organize photos, adjust security settings and use a digital assistant. “We have had to laser focus our attention on mobile operating systems, and right now it’s Apple iOS,” says Fawcus. “We’re just too small to do it all.”

Since COVID, Gluu has had to adjust to a post-pandemic reality: that it can no longer meet seniors face-to-face. Instead, a longstanding plan to bring course materials online was fast-tracked, partly thanks to funding from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED). The federal government has identified getting seniors connected as an urgent priority—and in Gluu, it found a turnkey solution to achieving that goal.

“Since we opened our online learning on April 1, we’ve run 6,300 seniors through the portal,” says Fawcus when we speak in late May. The online classes are delivered via the web-based Crowdcast platform and supplemented by a weekly Facebook Live Q&A. Fawcus says that Gluu—which, through mid-2020, had a barebones website and minimal social media presence—will be ramping up visibility this fall and expanding its presence across Canada.

For Fawcus—who dropped out of UBC in the mid-1980s to learn how to code and spent three decades working in Vancouver’s tech sector, including at 3D software pioneer Vertigo, in which she took an ownership stake—the desire to strike out on her own, and target seniors, was a personal one. In 2014, the year she came up with a business plan for Gluu, she was about to turn 50.

“In the technology world, if you’re over 35, you’re too old,” she says with a laugh. Her mother, then in her early 80s, was also struggling to figure out some of the devices her daughter was foisting on her, so Fawcus decided to explore more practical approaches to technological training. “I really wanted to do a deep dive into this space: where do seniors actually use technology, and what technology will they use to successfully age?”

Today, her mother is 88 and still living on her own in North Vancouver. “She has a new Apple Watch, which is a game changer for her on a confidence level, and for us connecting with her,” says  Fawcus. “She can use Siri to call us—and I send reminders to her watch.” Fawcus says her mother learned how to use her phone seven years ago, and even as she ages, those skills remain strong. “Thank goodness she learned when she did, because she may not be cognitively capable right now to learn that from scratch.” 

Devices of Choice

Internet usage among Canadian seniors is on the rise. Here’s how the share of seniors online grew from 2013 to 2016 (the most recent years measured):

65-74: 65%–81%

75-84: 38%–56%

85+: 25%–33%

As of 2016, seniors owned a range of devices:

46%: desktop computer

40%: tablet or e-reader

45%: laptop or netbook

34%: smartphone

Source: Statistics Canada