Bluehair Technology

For connecting grandparents to the digital world
Groundbreakers 2016
Illustration by Leonard Beard

On Joyce Ratliff’s 86th birthday in 2011, she got a brand-new iPad. It was a gift from her son, who had hoped it would help her connect more often with him and his grown kids scattered across the country. But Joyce had never used any kind of computer before, much less the latest in Apple technology. Jane Ratliff, Joyce’s daughter, decided to teach her mom how to operate the device, and slowly Joyce learned to send emails, navigate Facebook, and shop online. After a couple of months, she was playing Words with Friends against family members, a remarkable feat for someone born a decade before Scrabble was invented.

Last year the Pew Research Center found that nearly two out of five adults over age 65 don’t know how to use the internet. Although Joyce caught on, Jane didn’t see many educational options for seniors who wanted to learn how to surf the web or take selfies with their grandkids.

“No one was really thinking about that age group,” Jane says. “They needed instructions step-by-step from start to finish, with no jargon and no assumptions.”

In 2012 the 57-year-old Johns Creek resident—who previously held marketing and tech positions with AT&T, BellSouth, and Cox—created Bluehair Technology to help close the digital generation gap. The nonprofit offers four- to eight-week classes on “getting started” with devices. They are all taught at places where older adults are located—senior living communities, rec centers, country clubs, and churches—throughout metro Atlanta. So far Bluehair has helped nearly 3,000 seniors learn to use smartphones, tablets, and desktops.

Ultimately Ratliff wants to help adults of any age who may be lost in a sea of swipes and selfies, but she’s seen firsthand how life-changing technology can be for older adults in particular. According to the National Council on Aging, one out of every six seniors lives alone, and many suffer from social isolation. “They don’t want to be left out,” Ratliff says.

In a recent class, Ratliff showed an 88-year-old student how to text for the first time. The woman had been worried that a phone call would bother her son at work, so Ratliff walked her through all of the steps needed to fire off a message from her iPhone 6 Plus. “He responded!” the woman exclaimed excitedly a few minutes later. When they opened the text together, it read: Mom, I’m so proud of you.

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This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.