Elder tech helpers

Four people who make it their business to help seniors get on track online

Jody Blum (left) assists Audrey Kaplan Scher: ‘I don’t take over, I work with them.’ (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jody Blum (left) assists Audrey Kaplan Scher: ‘I don’t take over, I work with them.’
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
'I’m not a computer-savvy person,” confides a 64-year-old Jerusalem woman we’ll call Esther. 
“There were a lot of things I wanted to learn how to do on my smartphone and I wanted to get on the computer to pay bills.” Moreover, she had lost track of her passwords to access various websites and email accounts.
A friend showed Esther an ad for The Screen Savior, a service started several months ago by Eve Jacobs, 48, an English-speaking immigrant in Jerusalem. 
“There is a huge need in the older community for technical help,” Jacobs says. 
Common how-to questions involve smartphones and laptops; email and Facebook; WhatsApp and Gett (taxi app); websites for banking, medical appointments and shopping; and organizing digital photographs.
“People who have been born into a technical world or who have been using technical things for many years may not realize how many technophobes struggle with these things. They may ask family members for help a few times, but if they still don’t understand then they feel they cannot ask again,” Jacobs says.
Before their first session, Jacobs asked Esther to send her a list of the things she wanted to learn.
“This has been fantastic for me,” Esther says. “After a few hour-long sessions with Eve, I know what I’m doing. She sat and worked with me so now it’s all 1-2-3. It cost me just a little time and money.”
Jacobs is one of several Jerusalemites setting up cottage businesses to assist fellow English-speakers, mainly 60 and over, with technical and/or organizational tasks. These tasks are even more challenging for those who don’t speak or read Hebrew fluently. 
“Technology is taking over in every aspect of people’s lives,” Jacobs says. “Older people in Jerusalem now need to have an app to make an appointment at government offices and to top up their Rav-Kav cards. They need to be able to make medical appointments online. And – the big one – they are concerned to put their credit-card info into their phone to use Gett. We really must help integrate them into our technological society.”
Jacobs, who has a background in special education, offers one-on-one lessons at a pace and level to suit each client. One 93-year-old client, she reports, video-calls her on WhatsApp every day to practice using the app he now uses to stay in touch with his family abroad. 
“I can help people set up new phones, connect new printers or learn how to use a new electronic device. I am empowering older people not just to become tech savvy, but also to be able to do things in Hebrew through clever translation tricks on their computers,” Jacobs says.
ANNE M. KAHAN, an 80-plus retired school psychologist who made aliyah three years ago from Boston, found she needed assistance making medical appointments, getting oriented in Israeli supermarkets, banking online, translating Hebrew correspondence and navigating to new places. 
She found help for all these tasks from Samantha (Sammie) Barak, 51. Barak has lived in Israel for 26 years and decided two years ago to get out from behind her computer in order help independent seniors accomplish specific projects. 
“You could say I am like a personal assistant, tailoring according to their needs,” she says. 
Barak has four or five regular clients as well as one-off clients, all reaching her through word of mouth as did Kahan. 
“I have a daughter in Baka and a son in Ra’anana, but I didn’t want to be a burden to them. My son-in-law recommended Sammie and she’s terrific,” says Kahan. “She comes twice a week for a few hours. I save things for her to do that I don’t do well myself. Sometimes she even goes with me to appointments. She’s a godsend.”
Barak says she loves working with golden agers and sees what she does as more of a service than a business. 
“My grandfather lived with us when I was growing up in London, so from an early age it was natural for me to be around older people,” she says. “I love seeing the vitality in each person I work with.” 
JODY BLUM, 56, started Services for Seniors after having worked as a geriatric social worker, personal organizer and financial coach for English-speakers. 
“About four or five years ago I realized that the financial coaching arena had gotten very flooded. I still had all these senior clients I enjoyed working with, so I decided to focus on helping seniors with financial, bureaucratic and organizational issues,” she explains.
The majority of Blum’s clients are over age 60. In the past year, she worked with 14 clients on an ongoing basis and five who engaged her for a single two-hour session. 
She’s often asked to help with health-insurance reimbursements, Bituah Leumi (National Insurance Institute) payments for caregivers, organizing tax documents for the client’s accountant and a system to keep track of charitable giving.
“A lot of people want me to review their bank and credit-card statements to make sure mistakes haven’t been made,” she says. One client discovered through this process that he was missing several months of rent on one of his properties.
The idea is to set up systems for clients to use on their own if possible. “People take notes of things to work on between visits. I don’t take over; I work with them,” Blum says.
Audrey Kaplan Scher, 76, says that working with Blum over the past half year has motivated her “to do more of the things on my own that I’m perfectly capable of doing.”
Scher always managed her family’s finances (“My husband is a theoretical physicist and worries about black holes, and I take care of everything else,” she jokes) but she was starting to feel overwhelmed, especially as she allocates significant time to nonprofit endeavors and to her children and grandchildren. So she called her neighbor, Blum. 
“The first thing was to make a huge master list of everything Jody is good at, focusing and prioritizing and identifying my weak areas,” says Scher, who has lived in Israel for 25 years.
Blum helped Scher determine which credit cards offer the best benefits. She assisted Scher in applying for US Social Security payments. She organized Scher’s insurance policies and medical forms. She set her up with Excel spreadsheets to make end-of-year tax calculations a less dreaded task.
“Jody has been a pleasure to work with and we also have a good time together,” says Scher. “The two hours I spend with her are full. I don’t need somebody to write my checks or pay my bills, but I do need someone to make sure I don’t drown and she does that.” 
Like the other service providers interviewed for this article, Blum finds many of her clients through the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), whose main office is in Talpiot.
ROCHELLE GILBERT, a private information technology tutor, is on the AACI board of directors and gives courses there on basic computer skills. On a voluntary basis, she also teaches AACI members how to access the organization’s e-library. She’s given presentations on smartphone usage at Cafe Europa (an English-speakers’ social group for Holocaust survivors) and Beit Tovei Ha’ir and Nofei Yerushalayim retirement homes.
About three years before moving to Israel from London, Gilbert was casting about for a new career direction. She had administrative and secretarial experience but wanted to be her own boss. 
“One night I went to a dinner party and one of the other guests said he’d just bought a new laptop and how do you do such and such? I told him how, and the hostess said, ‘There you have it – your new career!’ 
“I made aliyah in July 2013 and continued doing this kind of work, and actually it’s been far more successful here. Living in a heavily English-speaking area of Jerusalem is how I’ve come across most of my clients.”
Gilbert, 64, named her business Never2Late. She is mainly self-taught when it comes to digital technology.
“I took one formal class in Jerusalem on how to produce an e-book and I offer that skill to clients. A 90-year-old client of mine had a handwritten diary from when she was a teenager in the London Blitz and I scanned it into the computer and adapted it as a PowerPoint presentation so she could write text next to each image. It was very successful and has been taken by the Jewish Museum in London for display.”
Gilbert says many older people are terrified of what will happen if they push the wrong button on their smartphones. One of her main goals, therefore, is to get her clients comfortable using their phones.
If necessary, she starts at square one – taking the phone out of the box and showing them how to set it up and charge it. 
Helen Simpson, 65, engaged Gilbert to teach her not only how to use iPhone features and apps such as WhatsApp, but also how to email, search the Internet, send photographs and articles, and many other computer basics.
“I was totally computer illiterate; a Luddite,” Simpson says. “I was scared of the computer.”
After about 10 sessions, Simpson says she feels confident. “I feel I’ve achieved something. Nobody laughs at me anymore,” she reveals. Now Gilbert is teaching her to navigate around the Windows 10 operating system. 
Jacobs says the need for technological tutoring among Jerusalem’s older English-speaking population will only increase as more and more daily tasks must be accomplished online or on mobile.
“Israel, the tech capital of the world, is making all these apps for older people, but how can the apps help if people don’t know how to use them? It is never too late to bring technology into people’s lives. Watching their faces when they overcome their technical challenges is very rewarding,” says Jacobs.
Beyond the technology, the service providers to whom we spoke agreed that the one-on-one sessions are also helpful on a human level.
Barak notes that her first name, Samantha, is thought to derive from the Aramaic for “listener,” so she may have found her natural calling in this work.
Jacobs agrees. 
“My sessions mostly are 45 minutes of instruction and 15 minutes of talking. I’m a good listener,” she says. “This is about more than the money; it’s about helping people and it really does make me happy and fulfilled.”