By: Megan Kamerick
Published: January 20th, 2020

Kendra Gonzales coaches Linda Haverty on how to add a photo of a friend to her contacts list on her phone.
Megan Kamerick/KUNM

The United States now has 46 million people age 65 or older. That’s a record number, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

More of these senior citizens are adopting technology, but most also say they need help using new electronic devices such as smart phones. Falling behind on technology puts seniors at risk for social isolation, which makes them 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 annual spending by Medicare.

A startup company in Albuquerque has made matching tech-savvy young people with seniors its mission. Teeniors coaches them on using smartphones, computers and tablets.

Founder Trish Lopez pitched the idea at a startup weekend for women entrepreneurs in 2015 after realizing that her mother needed help.

“She’d lose a password, she’d lose a document and then she didn’t know some simple commands like Control Z that could undo everything she had just done,” Lopez said. “And so she would start all over again.”

As a new mom herself and busy with work, Lopez said she wanted to be able send someone to help her mother.

“But also, I wished I had the patience to help her in the way I wanted to,” she said.

Patience and listening are some of the fundamental skills young people learn as Teeniors, and the program has served more than 3,000 seniors in New Mexico. It added a nonprofit arm in 2018 and has landed grants from Comcast and Facebook to serve those who can’t afford to pay. The mission, Lopez said, is to empower senior citizens.

“I think that’s why we’ve been so successful,” she said. “The inter-generational learning experience is really remarkable and that’s why I always say the main service we provide is not tech support. It is human connection.”

Lopez has seen many Teeniors flourish through those connections. She has also seen many seniors break down when a Teenior helps them understand technology that seemed beyond their comprehension.

That was certainly true for Camilla Dorcey, 76. She was talking to a friend recently in her home in northeast Albuquerque about a new car she was getting that day. But not long ago, that routine task was beyond her, said Dorcey who at one time struggled using her smartphone.