Massachusetts Senior Living Residents Way Ahead of iPad Curve

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 19 June 2012

Ellie Doff, instructor, "The iPad Experience"

“A year ago, I stood in line at an Apple store at 5:00am, outside in the cold for four hours, before I got my iPad 2.”

The wait was worth it to 62-year-old Ellie Doff, who already had a Kindle and was waiting for the second version of the iPad to come out before purchasing one. Says Doff, “I was blown away by it.”

A former kindergarten teacher with a knack for technology (which she refined during her 25 years of running her husband’s dental practice), Ellie Doff quickly became the gadget go-to gal among friends and family; she thought the one-on-one “technotutoring” would fill the hours in her post-retirement, empty nest days.

However, things synced quite nicely for Doff and North Hill, a senior living community in Needham, Massachusetts. According to Rebecca Donato, North Hill’s director of business development, the dominating response to a 2009 resident satisfaction survey was a desire for more technology and education. “At the time, we weren’t offering anything in that vein,” said Donato. “We started offering PositScience, but that was really a brain fitness program and not exactly the ‘technology’ our residents were looking for.”

In the meantime, the iPad came out — and Ellie Doff came in.

Irene W., a North Hill resident, with her iPad

Now, 50 residents have gone through 60 days of classes, and 20 residents have purchased their own iPad. Those numbers will likely continue to increase, especially as North Hill completes a four-year expansion process (they’re three months in) from which a dedicated technology classroom will emerge, a place where residents can learn everything from digital photography to Word and PowerPoint to getting lost in electronic books on eReaders. North Hill’s leadership team is also thinking about extending the iPad education program to employees, both for iPad use outside and within the community. There are many uses and applications that could streamline staff efficiency and operations, says Donato. “We may eventually have Kindles available in our library for resident use,” she added.

For now, North Hill purchased eight iPads to loan to residents (selected by a lottery) who didn’t already have their own. They have use of the iPad for a 60-day period while they take Doff’s class. For six weeks, she guides four to six residents in each class for an hour at a time, three days a week.

There is a waiting list for the classes and iPads.

As we chatted on the phone a few weeks ago, Doff’s enthusiasm for the iPad, her students, and the entire community of North Hill residents and staff came through loud and clear. “It’s an amazing and magical world we’re living in with this technology,” she said. “And I love sharing my passion with others.”

Even as the instructor, Doff finds herself learning new tricks, shortcuts and features on her iPad every day. “Technology is changing on a daily basis, and anyone who doesn’t want to learn about it will be left behind,” she said.

That being said, Doff also believes that the iPad “brings the outside world to those who can’t get out,” and all retirement communities of the future should have some sort of technology education program (and of course, access to it via Wi-Fi and other digital amenities).

Beth W., another iPad class participant

Attendees are motivated by a variety of factors, said Rebecca Donato. Many want to be able to view their grandchildren’s blogs and websites, or to connect with them on Skype, Facebook, or through FaceTime. Others want to learn how to make better use of their iPhones.

“It’s incredible to see these residents using iPads,” said Doff. “Some have no computer experience whatsoever, but the technology is so intuitive, and if you make a mistake, it’s not as big of an issue as with a computer.” Doff also told me she can adjust the settings on the iPad up to 56 points according to the needs of her students. “It is so helpful for people with extremely poor vision or macular degeneration,” she said. “And they can listen to online radio programs, like NPR, just by touch.”

Doff uses a lot of repetition in her classes. She also teaches participants how to Google, how to listen to Pandora (many enjoy old favorites like Benny Goodman, she said), how to play bridge, and how to watch Shirley Temple, Groucho Marx and other best-loved shows, like Fibber McGee & Molly, on YouTube and elsewhere. “They love it!” said Doff.

Another activity the students enjoy: Spending time on Maps. A student will type in the address of the house he or she grew up in, and in some cases, a clear picture of the house materializes on the screen. “The residents are amazed,” says Doff. “They say, ‘that was my house, my street, my neighborhood.’ Then I teach them how to grab a screen shot of the picture so they can save it and send it as they please.”

The knowledge that residents acquire in Doff’s classes have far-reaching benefits. For one, Donato loves how the course — and subsequently, the residents’ technology savvy — “completely turns the image that people have about older adults and technology around.” The residents (whose average age is about 88, according to Donato), are “so curious and desirous of being engaged.” Sometimes, Doff teaches the residents tricks for the sole purpose of teaching them to their kids and grandkids, further turning the stereotype of out-of-touch, technologically inept elders on its head.

What do the residents have to say about their experience in Ellie Doff’s class?

George Z., who took the class to become a more proficient iPhone user (his wife is also currently enrolled in Doff’s class), says “I’m quite computer literate for my age.” But now, armed with the “copious notes” he gathered from Doff, whom George describes as “a wonderful teacher,” he has all of his contacts, emails, and other personal records streamlined and synced with Microsoft Outlook. He loves that about today’s technology, that all of his information can be securely stored in one convenient location.

He also used the technology to his advantage when, after a major surgery, he experienced abnormal skin discoloration. Using the iPad, he snapped a self-portrait, which he emailed along to his four sons. “One of them is a doctor,” he explained. George’s sons were impressed with this initiative… and also concerned about their father’s reaction. “So I went to my dermatologist,” said George. Shortly thereafter, his skin did clear and return to its normal appearance, and George took another photograph. He made sure the dermatologist had a printed copy of the first photograph (with the discoloration) for his medical records.

George also shared another story of how the iPhone connected family members separated by miles, even oceans. After a flurry of emails, text and picture messages, it was confirmed that a grandson, away at college in London, had connected with a friend in Germany, who happened to be at the same event as his grandson. “It’s a small world,” he said.

At the close of our conversation, Ellie Doff shared one of the most incredible experiences she ever had in a class (though I’m sure it wasn’t easy to choose just one). The daughter of a resident had just given birth. “He had seen a picture of his grandchild, but I set him up on FaceTime so they could connect live and he could talk to his daughter and see his grandchild all at once.” Says Doff of the moment, “It was beautiful, it was gorgeous — and for me, by staying connected to technology, I stay young and can change with the world.”


There are 12 Comments about this post

  1. Marge Sunners says,

    This was a fabulous article about an amazing person who’s innovative idea has changed and continues to change the lives of many for the better. Ellie needs to be cloned!


    on 19 June 2012 / 6:41 PM

  2. Thanks, Marge! I’m glad you loved the article and I was more than thrilled to have interviewed Ellie…she definitely seems to fit the description you’ve written here. A wonderful person indeed! Appreciate the comments.


    on 20 June 2012 / 8:28 AM

  3. Ann says,

    What a wonderful thing you have done! You have really given an incredible thing to the elderly, and make us look young again


    on 20 June 2012 / 8:36 PM

  4. Joanne Bernstein says,

    What a wonderful article this is.
    You are a very special person.
    The senior citizens are so lucky to have you share your knowledge with them.
    I am so proud of you.


    on 20 June 2012 / 9:14 PM

  5. Matthew Weiss says,

    Ellie is a bundle of uplifting energy, creativity, and intellectual curiousity. It’s great to see her sharing her gifts through providing a service that enriches the lives of the elderly. I hope the folks at Apply are paying attention!


    on 20 June 2012 / 10:53 PM

  6. Karen Goldsmith says,

    For almost 30 year, I have been fortunate to call Ellie Doff my friend. It is wonderful to see her share her enthusiasm of the Apple world with the senior population. I can just envision her unique sense of humor in the classroom. I am sure that puts everyone at ease immediately and open to learning new technology.


    on 21 June 2012 / 8:44 AM

  7. Wow! Thank you to Karen, Matthew, Joanne, and Ann for your comments. I’m so pleased to know that the article clearly displayed Ellie’s passion, innovation and dedication in her work at North Hill, which was so clear to me even though we only spoke on the phone. Thanks for stopping by the blog and sharing your thoughts! And thank you again, Ellie, for taking time to speak with me (and for all you do for these seniors and friends)!


    on 21 June 2012 / 8:59 AM

  8. Kathy Benetos says,

    That is so great you are giving these people a whole new world to discover. Where they may have felt that life was a dead end, you have just opened up a new world for them. Congratulations again! Great as articles reads….. students can view their old homes, get medial information and stay close to family.


    on 21 June 2012 / 9:44 AM

  9. Kathy, thanks for your comment! Ellie really is opening a whole new world to them. She does wonderful work!


    on 21 June 2012 / 10:16 AM

  10. Ellie Doff says,

    Thanks to North Hill for having a vision, “The iPad Experience.” It is my privilege and pleasure to be working with the residents and staff at North Hill.
    Thank you Michelle for writing such an amazing article.
    Also thanks to everyone who has written in comments and to those who may add future comments.
    And finally thank you Apple for creating the iPad, an incredible piece of machinery, which has helped to change many lives, including my own.


    on 22 June 2012 / 8:14 AM

  11. You’re welcome, Ellie! Thanks for your comment and for the great work you do!


    on 22 June 2012 / 8:35 AM

  12. Judy Chudnofsky says,

    Yasher Koach…you are such a GIFT !!!


    on 30 October 2013 / 2:35 PM


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