Powered by Connection: Connecting to the Future of Aging Services

Every May, the Administration for Community Living leads the nation’s observance of Older Americans Month (OAM). The 2024 theme is Powered by Connection, which recognizes the profound impact that meaningful relationships and social connections have on our health and well-being.

For more than a decade, the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing (FPCIW) has fostered connections with USC (the University of Southern California) and its programs, including the Schools for Gerontology, Engineering, Occupational Therapy and Computer Science. These connections have developed new technologies and methods for serving older adults, and provided opportunities to future professionals as they enter the field of Aging Services.

Younger and older person sit next to one another with smart phones

Each semester, FPCIW provides internship opportunities for USC students, two- to three-month projects that give them hands-on experience. Internship opportunities include a “tech buddy” program, pairing interns one-on-one with older adults, often at a CARING Housing Ministries community, to teach skills ranging from how to use a tablet to using Zoom or FaceTime to connect with family members to setting up a Google Drive account to store files, depending on their level of comfort with technology.

The real-life experience of working with older adults is vital, according to Jennifer S. Lee, operations manager for the Center. “I think a lot of students come in with notions of older adults acting a certain way or being a certain way, or having a certain amount of knowledge when it comes to technology,” said Lee. “A lot of the times, they’re surprised. There’s just certain things, certain interactions and nuances to the relationship that you can’t learn out of a textbook. So it’s really nice seeing the students grow and develop over that period of working with us and our residents.”

The internship program is beneficial to both students and the people they work with. Hao Sun, who came from China to get his graduate degree in Gerontology from USC, worked with Chinese-speaking residents of Pilgrim Tower, an affordable CARING Housing Ministries community in Los Angeles. “Most of the community’s members are Chinese. They only speak Chinese, but the community has no Chinese staff, so there is an urgent demand for them to have someone who can speak Chinese to teach them,” said Sun.

After familiarizing himself with the community for a couple of weeks, Sun created workshops for residents on topics such as WeChat, Google Translate and cybersecurity. The workshops were presented in both Chinese and English to the ten to 20 residents who attended each week.

Lee believes Sun’s work will continue to impact the community, long after his internship is over. “His lessons in digital literacy will live at the community through the physical guides that he created, free for residents to learn on their own or for other staff, volunteers and interns to use in future workshops,” Lee said. In addition, other community residents who serve as “Resident Ambassadors” and attended Sun’s workshops can support and train their neighbors.

Sun hopes his degree and first-hand experience will support his goal to work with older adults in his home country. “China has a huge demand in the gerontology area,” Sun explained. “Right now, aging is a serious issue in China, so I went to study abroad to study gerontology. Maybe one day I can come back to China to go to this career.”

Front Porch has also benefitted from the internship program. “It’s so interesting and fun to hear interns’ fresh ideas when it comes to technology or projects,” says Lee. “It helps me think about things in a new way.”

Lee knows first-hand the benefits of being an intern with Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing. “I was actually an intern,” she shared. “I was at the USC Gerontology School and for one of our Gero Technology classes, we had a tour of Kingsley Manor. They focused on memory care and showed some of the existing technology that was going on at the time.” The experience inspired her to reach out for an internship, hosting virtual reality sessions in assisted living at Kingsley Manor. After graduating from USC, Lee was hired by FPCIW in 2019.

“It’s so amazing to have the relationship go from student to partner to collaborator,” said Lee. “Now I’m working with my old professors on projects. It’s been really cool to see the projects and the people change and develop. I’m just so grateful to still be connected to USC in this way.”