“Anybody got cell phones?” Virtually everyone in the packed room inside of the Maywood Multipurpose Building on 5th Avenue raised their arms. One woman said, rather matter-of-factly, that she had about three or four. The questioner, Sam Balark, Director of External Affairs for AT&T Illinois, confessed: “I feel empty without my cell phone.”
Then he asked who in the room was on Facebook. There were a few raised arms. Balark said that five years ago, he wouldn’t have imagined he’d be on Facebook, but now…well, times change. Balark appeared to be in his late forties to early fifties. The crowd he was addressing was comprised of about 60 to 70 senior citizens from the Maywood Senior Club. The club has been convening here every Friday since June of 2008, when the Village noticed a lack of opportunities for Maywood senior citizens to meet-up, socialize and get informed. According to Larry Shapiro, a Village spokesman, the club gives the seniors something in which to claim ownership.
After Mr. Balark spoke, the seniors were given complimentary AT&T tote bags stuffed with decidedly less sophisticated gadgets than the ones being discussed. Chris Garrett, a retail sales manager with AT&T, struggled to demonstrate over the chatter the free bags were generating. As points of interest, the stuff in the bags easily trumped the presentations going on in the front. “Where’s my pen?” one man inquired aloud. After a while, the collective rustling eased. Mr. Garrett wanted to know who among the group knew anything about face time. “What are you talking about?” one woman seated at my table said, quite vocally.
Mr. Garrett began a testimonial of his own, saying that, because of face time, he talks to a relative of his about three times a week. Before, he might have been dependent on flight and at the mercy of an expensive airplane ticket. The room, awash in bemused confusion, seemed to calm a bit when Mr. Garrett and Mr. Balark began to demonstrate the feature on their phones. “It’s a very simple technology once you get used to it,” Mr. Garrett said.
Mr. Balark began walking around, showing the seniors Mr. Garrett’s face manifested on the screen of his smart phone. One woman was already in the know. She said she used the feature on her tablet to converse with her good friend. “I’ll be sitting in my…room and she’ll be on the screen right next to me!” Others were still on shaky ground when it came to all of the wizardry. One man wanted to know if AT&T offered a senior discount for the phones and the tablets and the this and the that (it was all still a haze to more than a few of the attendees). Mr. Balark quickly confirmed that there was, in fact, such a discount.
Before he wrapped up his demonstration, Mr. Garrett told the crowd about AT&T’s new flagship store that would appear in downtown LaGrange later in the year, occupying the space that once hosted a Borders bookstore before the retail chain folded. He asked the crowd if they were familiar with the location. Some people were, some people weren’t. There was a general tenor of doubt that any of them would actually visit the store when it opened. In fact, the whole exercise seemed little more than a curiosity. As the men from AT&T spoke, some people were stubbornly reading print editions of the West Suburban Journal, quietly demonstrating the trenchant reality that the relationship between people and their things is often much deeper than cost differentials and advanced features. In many ways, the things create us—they make up worlds that are sometimes impossible to leave behind.
Someone from the crowd wanted to know about computers. Would the world of tablets and smart phones displace the world with which many of these seniors were just beginning to get acquainted? Mr. Garrett reassured them that computers were here to stay, but the general trend was going in the direction of data. “Don’t be surprised when voice drops off,” he said. I wondered if any of the seniors actually understood the import of his statement. I doubt many of them did. There seemed to be a communication chasm between the men from AT&T and the group of seniors—the devices making the two camps Martians to each other.
Laurinda Dodgen, the Associate State Director of Advocacy and Outreach for AARP, seemed fully acquainted with the divide. Her organization is deep in attempts to ease the transition for the state’s seniors from the worlds of landline phones, print newspapers and analog technology to the world of now—where an almost infinitesimal arrangement of invisible 1s and 0s, if arranged properly, can result in a face to face conversation between two everyday people separated by an ocean.
AARP facilitates intimate training for seniors in social media and other forms of advanced technology. The Illinois state office is one of the organization’s most successful in terms of the number of senior citizens it engages on this front. When it comes to Maywood, however, Dodgen admitted there was still some ground to cover. She sees this as an opportunity. AARP’s relationship with Maywood isn’t “as strong as I would like it to be, but I’m working on it.”
The Maywood Senior Club meets every Friday at 200 S. 5th Avenue. To arrange for bus pickup, call 450-6300 a day before the meeting. For more information, call Larry Schapiro at 708-510-1843.