Tom Kamber, one of Next Avenue’s 2018 Influencers in Aging, projects so much exuberance and enthusiasm as he discusses his work as founder and executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS)/Senior Planet, that you believe he and his team will personally assure that every older adult in the country will be online before the end of the year.
He’s on his way: Over the past 14 years since it was founded, his organization has helped nearly 100,000 older adults get online and created the country’s first technology-themed community center for older adults. OATS has 50 technology community centers in five states across the country, serving urban and rural communities. In addition to serving as a tech education and community center for older adults, the New York City location has also been the backdrop for a Hack Aging event and Senior Planet Start-Up!, a 10-week program that helps 60+ tech entrepreneurs create businesses. Kamber also recently was in the spotlight as New York News1’s “New Yorker of the Week.”
In our interview with Kamber, we show why he truly is one of the top innovators and leaders in aging.
Next Avenue: When you founded OATS 14 years ago, what were your expectations and your hopes, and how has it changed over time?
Tom Kamber: It’s funny, but when I started OATS, I think I had two expectations, and one of them we have surpassed by a mile and the other one I think we’re just beginning to make a difference on.
The first one was that I really wanted to create a program that would really, really be able to get older adults to use the internet and use technology, and give them the kinds of training and support in environments where they could succeed in doing that. That’s an area where we’ve actually really made a big difference and it feels amazing. It feels so … I guess rewarding. When we first started out, I interviewed all of these senior center directors from around the city and I typed, ‘What’s going on around technology in aging?’ And they all told me the same stories, that they had lots of seniors who wanted to take classes. They even had labs, but they didn’t have training. They didn’t have funding, and they didn’t have courtesy over methodology that was really working. And so we set ourselves to cut that nut and over the course of seven or eight years, we developed a model that’s really working. I have assembled, and then they have assembled on top of the original crew, the best non-profit staff in existence. These people are amazing, and so I’ve got this incredible team and they are hitting the ball out of the park every single day, and it’s been really rewarding.
The second area that we really try to make a difference is — to use a really ambitious terms— awesome social change. I’ve been an activist since I’m 15 years old, canvassing and raising money for environmental organizations in New Jersey. I remember when I was 15, reading Martin Luther King and getting all psyched about the idea that he could actually go out and do something majestically awesome when it came to changing the world.
We wanted not just to be improving the world, but something that was really profoundly important and I would say in the last five years at OATS, it’s started to feel that way now. It is going beyond people learning how to use technology, but really what’s happening is that it’s a spark that’s gotten created. People are using the technology to transform themselves and then transform their communities, and I’m seeing it. You can actually see it happening right in front of your eyes.
What would you like everyone to know about older adults and their relationship with technology?
I want people to know that the mainstream technologies that you see younger people using at the dinner table, at the library and in the subway, those mainstream technologies are all technologies that older people learn just fine when given the right chance to take their time and get a little bit of support and training to explore what’s relevant and learn the skills to use them.
The first thing that I would say is, ‘Don’t be afraid. Get out there and try this out. There’s a whole world of great tech that people can use.’ There’s no reason that older people should not use technology they’re interested in, that they think can help both themselves and their lives. That’s the first thing.
Number two is really people have a lot of anxiety about what’s going on in the digital age in terms of the fact that people stop talking to each other because we’re on our phones so much. I share those concerns, and I think that seniors really should use their own common sense and values to use technology the same way they do anything. Pick and choose the devices you want. You don’t have to use everything. Use it for your own purposes, but get online and come be part of this age.
We really need the older people using technology and participating in the digital environments because we need their voices. We need the influence of older people because they have perspective, because they have a set of values and life experience that can really come, I think, and make the technology world a better place for everybody.
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