- The Washington Times - Monday, June 1, 2009

In a classroom in Bethesda, Florence Polinsky was rapidly picking up skills her grandchildren had already mastered.

Patrick Gall led Mrs. Polinsky, 65, through menus on her flip phone, her pink nails tentatively pressing the keys. She smiled and looked up in amazement as he showed her the steps needed to listen to a voice mail.

“Nobody told me that I could get those,” she said. “Sometimes my kids leave me a message, but I can never retrieve it.”

Mr. Gall, a 32-year-old manager for AT&T; Wireless in Fredricksburg, Va., couldn’t resist commenting on the missed calls and lost messages in Polinsky family communications.

“How does Christmas ever happen?” he asked with a smile.

Mrs. Polinsky, of Rockville, took the class last week at the Montgomery Mall office of Older Adults Services and Information Systems (OASIS). The St. Louis organization runs education and volunteer programs for seniors in 24 cities across the country; the Montgomery branch’s class on cell phones has been a perennial favorite.

Ten volunteers from AT&T; Wireless stores and offices in Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District sat next to seniors in the spacious classroom, answering questions and showing how earpieces and headphone jacks could make life easier. Other attendees asked about text messaging and how to change the volume settings on their phones.

More than 50 seniors signed up for the 20-minute one-on-one sessions. Another 32 were placed on a waiting list.

Lessons like these have proved popular as more seniors begin to enjoy the benefits of cell phones and mobile devices. Sixty-four percent of seniors use cell phones, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. While that doesn’t approach the level of cell phone use among younger Americans (84 percent to 92 percent), it is growing faster than seniors’ use of computers and other digital devices, said Susannah Fox, who helped conduct the study for the D.C. research group.

Although more seniors own cell phones, few use all the features, Ms. Fox said.

“There’s a difference between having them and using them,” she said, noting that only 8 percent of seniors use their phones for text messaging.

As Mrs. Polinsky worked through her list of questions with Mr. Gall, carefully writing down the instructions he gave her, she acknowledged that she and her husband rarely use their phone.

“I don’t use it every two or three days,” she said. “It’s more like every two weeks. To be truthful, we use it for emergencies.”

AT&T; Wireless’ partnership with OASIS began after the group conducted a successful class for seniors at its Houston location a few years ago.

“It was widely popular,” said Beth Gautier, a spokeswoman for AT&T.; “Wireless devices are becoming synonymous with the ‘wallet and keys’ people always have on them. This class is a natural fit for seniors.”

DeDe Conner, 78, a retired financial analyst from Rockville, said her husband understands cell phones, “but it’s a different thing for him to try and teach me.”

“I take day trips, or two-day trips, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to drive and answer the phone. So I learned how to use this,” Mrs. Connor said as she pulled a small pink Bluetooth headset from her purse, “and now I know how to use almost all of it.”

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