Partnering Seniors & Students for Health Literacy

Students and seniors search for drug information online.

Students and seniors search for drug information online.

Earlier this week, we did a little pilot where we partnered university students and seniors to help seniors learn to search for high quality medication information online.

The idea came to me when I was giving a presentation on digital health literacy at a seniors' computer club called "Bits and Bytes".  My PhD student Kate Mercer has a background as a librarian. She and I often present on the digital health literacy. When we talk with seniors, we tend to get a lot of unexpected questions--everything from "What is an operating system?" to "How do I figure out if my drugs are covered by my plan?".

After the Bits and Bytes presentation I met a man named Lew Ford. Mr. Ford is a retired teacher. A few years back he'd run a pilot program that partnered high school students with seniors. I asked if he thought we could do something similar with university students and the idea was born.

Over the next few weeks, we managed to get a small group together that included Mr. Ford, Kate, a pharmacy student, a health sciences student and a biology student. The students crafted the curriculum while Mr. Ford and Kate recruited participants for a pilot. 

Our first session this week was wonderfully eye opening. We had 5 participants, and started by covering the basics of online searching, including browsers and cookies. We then headed to the pharmacy practice lab where each senior was partnered with a student and assigned a computer. We gave each pair the following tasks:

  1. Think of a drug you want to know a bit more about
  2. Find a government website on that drug
  3. Find a HON certified website on that drug
  4. Find a blog on that drug
  5. Find your drug on Health Canada's website
  6. What did you trust? What did you learn? What was easiest to find? Do you feel better or worse about the drug?

The seniors searched, the students offered technical support and my research team offered feedback on search strategies and websites. We concluded the session with a group discussion of what we learned and sent each senior home with homework for next week's session.

Overall, we had a great time and hope to offer a regular program. If you are thinking of doing something similar at your own site, here are a few of the early lessons that I collected from the students and participants:

  1. Technology can be stressful for new users. The support offered by the students allowed the seniors to focus on the tasks rather than the technology.
  2. Active learning by doing is a heck of a lot more fun than passive learning by lecturing.
  3. Don't underestimate how much seniors know about technology and computers. They are equally eager to learn and pick things up very quickly.

  4. Little tips like using Control+F (PC) or Command+F (Mac) to find a word on the page were a big hit (e.g., "cancer").