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J.D. Brown Center’s first ‘virtual client’ helps York College students connect with York’s aging population

Generation Connect

One recent day in York, a York College of Pennsylvania student pulled up a chair next to an elderly Ethiopian woman, easing down with a careful smile.

The older woman spoke little English and she tended to shy away from interaction. She missed her home—and her late husband.

The young student-powered up her iPad.

The woman in the African shawl sat in silence, staring by turns at the student beside her and the map of that young lady’s hometown, pulled up on the tablet. She seemed suddenly to have something to say.

A moment later they browsed a map of an Ethiopian village, taking a virtual tour of the streets and buildings with a woman who hadn’t been there for years, who no doubt missed it every day.

“You saw her just light up,” said Michael Potteiger, co-founder of Generation Connect, the first “virtual” client of the J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship’s Business Incubator.

“She was just so touched that she had someone to take her back,” he said, “even for a little while.”

Making a difference

Over their semester together, the young student and the older woman befriended one another. The two looked at recipes and listened to music, they studied one another’s culture and learned to communicate largely without language. They connected through technology, Michael said, and through something even more powerful: Kindness.

“The way that particular relationship unfolded,” said Dr. Mary Ligon, chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at York College, “it was extremely rewarding to watch.”

And more of those opportunities can unfold thanks to Generation Connect, a York-based business that focuses on connecting the aging with modern technology.

For the past three semesters, York College students in Gerontology 320 have been visiting the White Rose Senior Center in York, part of a unique curriculum that brings technological training to the elderly, and valuable “person-centered” learning for those studying aging. More than 50 seniors and two dozen young people have participated, and the program continues to grow.

“Our first priority is student learning,” Dr. Ligon said, “but this is really making a difference in elders’ lives.”

A simple beginning

The idea for Generation Connect began with Michael’s grandmother. The mother of five has 10 grandchildren and a handful of great-grandchildren – a big, fun, loving family – but her husband passed away young and too often she spent her days home, all alone.

So, a few years ago Michael thought, “Why not get her an iPad, maybe teach her to FaceTime?”

The family was skeptical, and indeed the early going was a little slow. But the smiles on that tablet screen every day soon spread to other explorations, from Google to great music.

“It enriched her life, all of our lives, more than anyone ever thought at the beginning,” he said.

After that experience, Michael started Generation Connect with his sister Nacole Potteiger in 2013.

Today, their company offers iPad training, personalized plans for seniors’ memory care, and intergenerational teaching, like the program at York College—modern-day tools that nonetheless revisit a more timeless idea.

“Eventually, the technology always takes a back seat to the relationships,” Michael said.

Empowering older Americans

That type of innovation – and community-centered spirit – made Generation Connect a perfect fit for the J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship’s Business Incubator.

Even though the business is located mostly off-site, it will still benefit from the access to York College’s keen entrepreneurial minds and other resources, including students eager to contribute.

“As our society becomes increasingly dependent on technology tools for communication, it becomes increasingly important for our elder population to become educated on how to utilize tech,” said Jeff Vermeulen, executive director at the J.D. Brown Center. “Seeing how our students are partnering with Generation Connect in an effort to empower older Americans to unlock the capabilities of their iPads and smart devices is truly exciting.”