Getting Seniors ‘Connected’ Amid Looming Dislocations

Graduation day of the Filipino seniors taking the computer class. Seated are the staff: Constance Smith, class volunteer; Pi Ra, computer class program head; Tony Robles, housing organizer; and Helen Carter, computer class instructor (Photo courtesy of Senior and Disability Action)

I am privileged to work among elders in my job as a housing organizer at Senior and Disability Action (, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco's changing South of Market area. As a Filipino-American, I understand what aging means, and how our community honors its elders. I was born in San Francisco and have never been to the Philippines. But in the faces of the manongs and manangs that I come in contact with in my work, I see, feel and hear the stories that make up their lives as Filipino elders. It is a gift that I have been blessed to receive, which brings me closer to my Filipino spirit.

The seniors who live in the South of Market need a respite from the pressures of urban growth. The neighborhood is home to a Filipino community that’s in the throes of a real estate boom, with new buildings shooting up into the skyline, the shadow of evictions and displacement looming as a result of real estate speculation. This working class neighborhood is getting gentrified, with good-paying blue-collar jobs being replaced by tech jobs, filled by mostly young, mostly white tech workers. The San Francisco Bay Guardian reports that a person working a minimum wage job in the South of Market area would have to work 7.5 jobs to afford a one-bedroom apartment. This situation is dire for seniors with limited resources. While it cannot fill their every need, Senior and Disability Action advocates for better health care and housing for them and people with disabilities. Our aim is to ensure that senior and people with disabilities can “age in place,” or receive the care they need and avoid being placed in nursing homes. 

The spirit of sharing and care giving is what keeps our culture from being destroyed by the things that are assaulting the neighborhood.

We also help them cope with the fast-changing world and its new culture. One way we do this is to offer a computer class for seniors. Elderly students learn how to use a mouse, set up email accounts, upload pictures, use Skype and open a Facebook account. The instructor is Helen Carter, a Filipina elder from Naga City. She is a patient teacher who is encouraging and sensitive to the needs of the students. Some students, due to bad eyesight, need keyboards with big letters, while others need to go at a slower pace to get used to the array of buttons and screens that pop up rapidly.

The class has a family atmosphere. Students like 78-year-old Domingo see it as an opportunity to learn something new and avoid the isolation of being home alone. “The things I learn today, I forget tomorrow,” says Domingo, who adds that his online poker game has improved. 

Others, such as 83-year-old Adella, have found that being computer literate serves useful purposes. “I know how to send email and to get recipes on The Filipino Channel. I watch movies, listen to music. I can also see my medical chart and keep track of my appointments.”

Students learn at their own speed and enjoy each other’s company. During class breaks, the class has merienda (snacks), with students sharing the dishes they have brought from home, disconnecting from the technology for a while to enjoy real community. “Come eat now,” they call out, and I follow and eat and listen.

The computer class at Senior and Disability Action (Photo courtesy of Senior and Disability Action)

Helen Carter is a wonderful teacher. She is Bicolana, like my late grandmother, who came to the United States in 1926. Just as the manongs and manangs feel connected through technology, I feel connected as a Filipino through Helen. She is teaching me Bicolano phrases such as Dios mabalos (Thank you) and Pomondo ka (Shut up!) She conceived the class curriculum along with co-teacher PiRa, and it has been a joy for this lady from Naga City, who is helping to close the digital divide among our elders.

The elders in the Senior and Disability Action computer class are an inspiration. At a graduation ceremony held recently, all of them expressed deep gratitude to the instructors for giving them the chance to learn. The spirit of sharing and care giving is what keeps our culture from being destroyed by the things that are assaulting the neighborhood and threatening to break our families and spirits. An op ed piece in The New York Times argued that “technology celebrates connectedness but encourages retreat.” There is no such dichotomy in our class for elders. The technology is there, but culture and voices prevail over technology. The elders know when to “turn it off” and give their attention to the important things going on around them.

As the graduates received their certificates of completion, I watched them in their quiet strength and humility, amid the looming dislocations posed by speculation for profit. I watch our elders, and they teach me how to live. For that I owe them much gratitude. 

For information on Senior and Disability Action's computer class, call 415-546-1333.


Tony Robles

Tony Robles

Tony Robles-—Poet and co-editor of Poor Magazine, a poor-people led, indigenous people led media organization that reports and supports poor communities and communities of color.  Board member of Manilatown Heritage Foundation and nephew of poet Al Robles.