Sitting in the basement of Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest on Monday morning, Alice Jones placed her weathered hands on the sleek iPad as if it were a magical portal to another planet.
To the 75-year-old retired hospital worker, it was.
“I need to be out in this new world of pushing buttons,” said Jones, one of 50 District residents who received iPads this week, the start of a pilot program to distribute the devices to senior citizens who are at risk of isolation and depression.
The program is aimed at the tech-uninitiated, like Jones — who doesn’t use ATMs for fear they will eat her card. “I’ve got to get computerized,” she said with a chuckle, and nine other seniors seated near her nodded. “What’s that Google? I want to find out about this Google stuff.”
The $250,000 pilot, which will bring iPads, computer training and home Internet service to 100 seniors over the next year, is a program of the AARP Foundation, an AARP-affiliated charity, and is being administered in the city by Family Matters of Greater Washington, a social-services organization.
The initial recipients, most of whom live in Ward 2, will attend classes twice a week for six months to learn how to use the Internet, Skype, e-mail and social-media platforms such as Facebook. Fifty more will begin classes in July. Comcast is providing discounted Internet service, and Netgear is donating modems.
The goal of the program is to combat the isolation that can set in as seniors retire and their close friends and family members die, lose touch or move away.
Isolation is an “unrecognized crisis among seniors,” said Tom Kamber, executive director at Older Adults Technology Services, which developed the program and is training its volunteer instructors. “A lot of older people feel, in the digital age, that they are not relevant or included.”
A 2012 study by the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research, affiliated with the United Nations, found that Internet use increases social connections, both online and face to face, among people 65 and older. And a Pew Research Center study found that last year, for the first time, more than half (53 percent) of people 65 and older were online.
Understanding the mysteries of the Web can lift a veil dividing generations, Kamber said. “What happens when someone gets an iPad in their hands — ‘I felt like things were passing me by, and now I feel like I’m part of it.’ ”
In the District, the program selected low-income seniors at high risk of being disconnected from friends and family, said Najeeb Uddin, the AARP Foundation’s vice president of technology.
“We’re targeting people on the verge of being isolated and depressed. Their spouse might have passed away,” he said. “It’s about connecting to the community. It just happens to be that we’re using technology to do it.”
Participants, whose levels of isolation were assessed at the beginning of the program, will be reassessed after six months using an evaluation developed by Cornell University. If positive changes are reported, the program will be expanded on a national level, an AARP spokeswoman said. The foundation is also considering launching a similar six-month pilot in Sioux Falls, S.D., targeting rural seniors.
At an ice cream social to kick off the program Friday, seniors took notes in careful cursive. Not a smartphone was seen among them.
Bertha Grant, 83, who lives alone in a senior citizens building in Ward 6, said she had never used the Internet.
“I didn’t have any use for it,” she said. “I figured at my age, I was too old.”
William Goode, 72, a professional caddie wearing a bow tie and straw hat, agreed. “Why would I think I would ever need it?” he said.
But Goode is an artist, and Ali Muhammad, one of the trainers, pointed out that he could create a Web site for his art.
“Now why would I want to create my own Web site?” Goode asked.
“So people, without coming to your house, they can see your work,” Muhammad said, and Goode nodded in approval.
Thelma Pugh, who declined to give her age, said she wanted to learn how to “load some tunes.”
“I see people walking around,” she said, putting her fingers to her ears and pantomiming a person rocking out. “I want to hear what they’re listening to.”
Sitting in the classroom as the instructor showed the class how to take photos of each other, Charles Triggs said that when his marriage broke up six or seven years ago, his access to a computer also dissipated.
“I left it with her,” said Triggs, a 66-year-old resident of Ward 2. “I just feel left out. They say, ‘Contact us on such-and-such-dot-com.’ Can’t do that.”
With his iPad, he said, “I won’t feel left out any more. I’ll be part of the world again.”
Patrick Saunders said he last took a computer class in the 1980s and hoped that some of what he learned would come back to him. Virginia Toney, 72, said she looked forward to having the Bible at her fingertips without having to carry the book around. Clayton Sweeney, 60, said he planned to surprise his children with his new computer savvy.
The seniors, born in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, said they have had to get used to a lot of changes since they were young. Like not being able to find a pay phone on every corner. Like seeing people walk down the street with wires trailing from their heads, looking like lunatics talking to themselves.
But a few had already begun to venture into connectivity. Sterling Patrick, 66, who had a little experience with texting, offered his classmates some tips.
“Like you want to say, ‘I love you?’ ” he said. “You write, ‘I love’ and the letter U.”
That was too much for Jones. “I don’t worry about that,” she said. “Mm-mm. I’m not trying to rack my brains with that stuff.”