There’s a technological revolution afoot at Storyhouse – and it’s bringing young and old together to change lives for the better.
Digital Buddies is an intergenerational project run by Here & Now, a Blacon-based social enterprise which is dedicated to bringing socially isolated older people together in a friendly environment.
Here & Now was formed four years ago by Karen Smith and a group of volunteers, and in addition to Digital Buddies at Storyhouse, it runs two social activity groups and a weekly keep fit class in Blacon.
The genesis of Digital Buddies was an idea by Alan Smith, who works at the University of Chester and enlisted students there to join him in volunteering to teach older people computer skills.
He explains: “We managed to get funding through Santander to buy some iPads at the university. And from then on, we found that older people, and even people who haven’t got any idea how to use technology, were interested in the interaction with the younger people, but also learning about the devices they had.”
When Karen approached Brightlife – a partnership similarly working to reduce loneliness and isolation among over 50s in the area – about possible support for Here & Now, it took an instant interest in the enterprise’s digital technology work and offered a two-year National Lottery-backed grant.
That funding ran out in December, but with demand for its services just as strong (12 to 16 people attend each week), Here & Now has been continuing the tech group on a voluntary basis.
Digital Buddies came to Storyhouse in May 2017 and Hunter Street has been home ever since.
“We were only supposed to stay here for six weeks, and they just kept extending us, and they asked us to stay in the end because it got so popular,” Karen says.
The shape of each Friday morning get together depends on the number of volunteers – or ‘buddies’ – available, with a mixture of group sessions led by project officer Alan, and one-to-one tuition and help.
“A lot of people really enjoy the group sessions because it brings people together, so we have the social side of it as well,” Alan says.
That social side has extended to Christmas and Easter lunches and get togethers, as well as tea and cake for birthdays and other special occasions.
Lynn Folkes heard about the group eight months ago. She says: “I thought, well I live on my own and sometimes I need a little bit of company and a little laugh, so I decided, why not?
“I worked for BT for many years and used a computer then. But it’s like anything else. No matter how strong you are in your job, once you leave it for a time you forget a lot of things.”
Similarly, Mike Stevens used a computer at work, but when he moved home to Chester from London on retirement, he felt he didn’t have enough online skills to enjoy his new leisure time.
“I thought – this is exactly what I’m looking for. That was three months ago, and I’m very happy here,” he says. “Plus, there’s the social side as well; they’re a lovely group. I felt welcomed.
“I’ve never looked back. I’m progressing so I’m very happy.”
Conversely, Frank Samuels had no computer skills at all, and admits Digital Buddies has helped revolutionise his life.
“I couldn’t do anything,” he reveals. “I couldn’t come and buy a ticket for the cinema or theatre. I couldn’t go across Runcorn bridge. I couldn’t do any online business. Going on holiday, I couldn’t find out what the hotel looked like.
“There are a lot of people who must be like me, who are frustrated. Because it takes courage to admit that you don’t know about this and need help. For a man to ask for help is really quite difficult.
“I did find that very difficult. But they were very welcoming.”
Not every digital ‘buddy’ is a student. David Benson, who offered his support two years ago, is retired like many of those he now helps with their technology issues. The variety of queries and devices he sees keeps him on his toes.
“Anything could turn up here,” he points out. “When you add up all the tablet manufacturers, the phone manufacturers, the different versions, the number of variables is frightening.
“I learn something every time because there’s just so much there. Fortunately, the basic concepts behind the way things do work is enough in common. And then you’ve just got to find a way around the complexity.
“It’s one of the reasons I do it – it keeps my brain going! And I like people.”
The men and women Digital Buddies have helped have also learned more about the tech they use, with a recent project seeing them research – online of course – the history of computing for a public presentation to mark the group’s second anniversary here.
And last year, Frank even explained the work of Digital Buddies to the Queen when she visited Storyhouse with the Duchess of Sussex to officially open the venue.
“Computers are the new revolution, aren’t they?” Mike says: “They’ve changed the whole face of the world. And if you’re not in with that, you’re isolated.”
Frank agrees: “Digital Buddies has meant a great deal to me. I couldn’t have operated otherwise.”