Social media is buzzing at Center in the Park, the senior center in Germantown's Vernon Park.

For more than 40 years, seniors have learned dance, fitness, music and drama at Center in the Park, but now they are learning something new: technology, internet safety and social media.

Seeing the grandkids

"My 27th great-grandkid was born on March 23 and he lives in Arizona. I got to see him through Facebook," said Jessie Fischer, one of some two dozen seniors participating in Center in the Park's new program aimed at promoting computer literacy among older adults.

Center in the Park is one of seven organizations across the country to launch the program, called Digital Aging Mastery, which teaches senior citizens how to stay connected digitally. The program uses interactive tablet technology in order to connect older adults to their friends and family via the internet.

"The program seeks to show how the adoption of broadband and wireless technology can improve the quality of life and ability to age," explained Associate Director Renee Cunningham.

The program offers tablets to 25 older and lower-income Philadelphia residents who do not have access to or familiarity with technology. The tablets are used to access social media, the internet and email.

From typewriters to computers

"Almost all of the participants have not had any contact with tablets at all," said Cunningham. "The majority of them had no experience with computers even. For some, the last thing they touched was a typewriter."

Cunningham is instructor for the on-site portion of the program, teaching participants how to use the internet, email and Facebook.

"All of our participants have been very receptive ... everyone is in better shape than they were before they started," Cunningham said.

"I didn't have a computer before [Digital Aging Mastery]," explained Fischer.

A native of North Philadelphia, Fischer has been taking part in activities at Center in the Park, or "the Center" as she calls it, since her retirement from the food service management industry in 2006. She keeps in touch with her 10 kids, 25 grandchildren, and 27 great-grandchildren through Facebook and Skype.

Fischer is able to see and speak to her son in the military and her family in Utah and Arizona from the comfort of her home in Philadelphia. This is something that would not have been possible in 1943, the year she was born.

Fischer reminisced about times when a when a disposable Kodak camera was the only way to capture a photo. Now, in 2016, she is able to instantly see a photo of Easton — the most recent addition to the family. 

"Being far away, I don't get to visit that often. Facebook helps me," she said. "You reach out to people that you wouldn't ordinarily get to be with."

Cunningham also teaches participants general internet safety, such as who they should friend, what they should and should not write, and who can see it.

Lessons in internet safety

Retired telephone interviewer George Logan learned a valuable internet safety lesson the hard way after his Facebook was hacked. "Before [Digital Aging Mastery], I had been invited to Facebook. I didn't know any better than to friend everybody that knew somebody. So if I friended you, I friended all your friends and people I didn't even know. So, it got hacked," he said.

Since then, the Germantown resident has been much more aware of the importance of internet safety. "I have learned so much in this class," he said.

Along with learning general internet safety, Logan has also learned how to navigate Facebook. "I was able to connect with family. Even though they're family, I don't see them all the time. Being on Facebook, I can actually get more daily content, what interests them, what they're like as people. I feel a little closer", said Logan.

"A lot of people won't admit the fact that they're not always in touch with all their family. This helps you," he said.

"It's a very exciting opportunity to be able to put this technology in the hands of older folks and teach them how to use it, how to keep in touch with their families, how to keep in touch with each other. To be able to do that with tablet technology is really a wonderful thing," said Cunningham. "People who are connected to other people and to their communities live happier, healthier lives."

Germantown Beat is a website produced by student journalists at La Salle University.