Greenwich teen connects Witherell seniors to tech

July 30, 2017 GMT

GREENWICH — For a lot of kids, being asked to help their grandparents figure out their new iPad is a chore along the lines of taking out the garbage or mowing the lawn.

But Joey Farrell, a 16-year-old Greenwich resident, is not like most kids. He’s been spending the past three weeks of his summer vacation from Rye Country Day School at The Nathaniel Witherell, helping seniors move into the digital age.

Armed with an iPad and a lot of knowledge, he’s been showing them how they can communicate via Skype or Facetime with their families and even how to play an electronic card game or two.

“Since I was basically born with technology in my lifetime, it’s so easy for me and others in my age group to be able to show this to other people,” Farrell said. “I have a natural proclivity for it and not everyone is going to be able to use it effectively. For me, it’s going to be easier to teach it because it comes so naturally.”

Farrell, who will be a junior this fall, said he feels the residents at The Nathaniel Witherell are the best audience for the lessons since staying at the convalescent and nursing center can be an isolating experience.

He wants to connect them more — to their families, to their friends and anyone they can via digital devices, he said.

“It’s been great to work with everyone I have,” Farrell said. “I’ve enjoyed it because you get to spend time with them and get to know them. You’re showing them something and teaching them about technology and how to use it. They will tell me something about their lives and you hear such interesting stories and learn from their knowledge.”

This week will be Farrell’s last week at the Witherell, where he has spent from 1 to 5 p.m. each weekday at the facility through his school’s EE Ford Foundation Community Engagement Fellowship Program.

Sally Van Leeuwen, volunteer coordinator for Witherell, said residents and staff are happy to have Farrell at the facility and credited Rye Country Day for putting the program and student together.

Alison Doernberg, director of public purpose for the school and who oversees the fellowship program, said teaching seniors at the Witherell was Farrell’s idea completely.

“I want students to engage with their community and have it be about a collaborative partnership,” Doernberg said. “I don’t want them going in and saying, ‘Here’s what I have to offer you.’ I want them going in and saying, ‘I want to learn more about what you need and fitting my skills and interests to it to create something interesting.’”

The project stems from Farrell’s own background: he recalled how both of his grandfathers were in long-term care facilities like Witherell.

“This is wonderful,” Doernberg said. “Not enough people want to do this work.”

Farrell is one of 11 Rye Country Day students in the summer program working in Westchester and Fairfield counties in either four- or eight-week programs.

“It’s different than standard volunteering in that the students are creating something that otherwise wouldn’t exist,” Doernberg said. “They’re coming up with an innovative idea and collaborating with their community partner to make sure it actually meets the needs of the organization as they put it into action.”

Farrell has volunteered in technical support for Greenwich Library. He came to Witherell with the goal of connecting people through video chat aps to their loved ones, he said.

There have been some glitches in bringing the Witherell seniors up to techno speed. Not everyone is available to be connected through Skype during the four hours he is there — but he has helpeda resident connect to family in Israel via Skype, and has been showing residents how to make video messages to their families to send electronically.

The video card games have proven to be very popular among Witherell’s residents. Dorothy Collello worked with Farrell for the first time Thursday as he showed her how to play gin on the iPad. She said really enjoyed it, especially the hands-on instruction.

Farrell has been regularly working with Betty Reilly who loves playing pinochle on the iPad, a game she used to play with her parents and siblings and now plays with her niece when she comes to visit. Being able to play without a physical deck of cards has been a treat for her, she said.

“This gives me something else to do besides sleeping and going down to hear the music. It gives you a new lease on life. Otherwise we’re doing the same thing here day after day,” Reilly said. “It’s a lot of fun to do it this way and Joey’s been so wonderful.”

Marge Wheat has been playing bridge on the iPad.

“I’ve loved everything about this,” Wheat said. “It’s so immediate. You just turn it on and you’re ready to go. Joey couldn’t be nicer. He’s very, very polite and extremely good. ..I requested bridge. I love the game and I hadn’t played it in a while. I wanted to brush up and now I’m talking with others about starting a bridge club here.”

One of Farrell’s goals was getting residents at Witherell more engaged and social. Van Leeuwen said his visits have made a difference.

“We need more Joeys,” Van Leeuwen said, saying he’s been a different kind of young volunteer.

“We have a lot of teenagers here but a lot of them are helping out with transporting and running the gift shop,” Van Leeuwen said. “Joey being here doing this is a unique thing because it’s one on one. It takes a very special teenager to do one on one and I hope that this has legs.”

Van Leeuwen said she hoped other teens would pick up where Farrell has left off.

Farrell said it will be hard to say goodbye next week.

“I don’t want this to end after four weeks,” he said.