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NCOA Aging Conference (Part 2): My “Senior” Moments with Walter

In my recent attendance of the “What”s Next: Boomer Business Summit” in Chicago I decided to spend a couple of days at the NCOA/ASA Aging Conference that followed. As this conference is geared more to educating senior care givers, I found myself observing the business of aging from a different perspective.

One of things that struck me was the use of senior volunteers to assist the largely baby boomer-aged attendees in going from session to session. They (the senior volunteers) were unmistakably deputized with over-sized green sashes prompting attendees to “Ask Me”. Ultimately, they were very helpful (to the extent that they were familiar with the contents of the 300-page phone book that was the conference directory).

My most valuable experience of the conference, though, came over lunch on my last day. While waiting to be served my overpriced hamburger I met one of the volunteers — 81 year old, Walter. Walter and I initially bonded in our frustration over the service and quickly found ourselves in an unexpected discussion over, as he put it, “conferences like these”.

Below are some of the things that I learned in my conversation with Walter:

  • Walter is a Chicago native who was invited to the conference through his connections with Northwestern University.
  • Walter had no idea what NCOA or ASA did for older adults but knew that the conference dealt with “aging”.
  • He has no interest in the subject of aging and strongly stated that it wasn’t for people “like him”.
  • He, and the people that he hung out with, are “doers” (as to suggest that aging issues were specific to the feeble and/or incapacitated). He acknowledged that “someday” he may need for this kind of assistance, but not yet.
  • Professionally, Walter was a retired mid-level manager who, upon retiring, decided to go to law school, (which he ultimately didn’t complete because it placed too much financial pressure and time constraint on his family life).
  • One of the things Walter enjoys most is a continuing education program for seniors at Northwestern, where the classes are run by seniors with minor faculty oversight.
  • Through Walter’s experiences at Northwestern, he had many friends with which he regularly enjoyed everything from breakfast to trips to Argentina. He was currently teaching a class on China although he had not been there “yet”.
  • When I asked about his usage of the Internet, his facial expression and response left the impression of “Are you crazy? Of course I use the Internet — all the time”. Since I had already asked one seemingly stupid question, I pushed further. I asked if he spent more time watching TV or on the Internet for which he replied, “Oh, definitely the Internet.”
  • He seemed a tad apologetic in suggesting that, for all of the time he spent on the Internet, his use was mostly limited to email and research (as if to acknowledge that the Internet offered more than what he may or may not be aware of). It was pretty clear that being “up” on the Internet was socially and intellectually important to him.
  • In sensing that his use of the Internet might be greater than he was giving himself credit for, I asked if he or his wife made purchases online. He didn’t hesitate to say “yes” and then qualified it by saying, “primarily books or travel”.

I finished our conversation by asking Walter if he thought that the number of options provided on the Internet was a problem to him. He told me that Google was “his” search engine and, no, he generally didn’t have a problem with the volume of information presented on the Web. As Walter got up to return to his post (or to politely escape my barrage of questions) he turned to me and said, “The problem with the Internet are these websites. If I can”t figure out what I want to do, I just leave and find another one.”

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