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Cyber-Seniors shows age is no barrier on the web

Saffron Cassaday has seen the clip dozens of times, but the director of Cyber-Seniors still cracks up when she’s reminded about an amusing sight-and-sound bite from her documentary. “Could you explain a bit about this Face ...
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Young mentor Max Schellenberg shows Shura Eadie how to navigate the Internet in Cyber-Seniors.

Saffron Cassaday has seen the clip dozens of times, but the director of Cyber-Seniors still cracks up when she’s reminded about an amusing sight-and-sound bite from her documentary.

“Could you explain a bit about this Face ... something, and having to be a friend?” asks a bespectacled, white-haired woman, clearly clueless about Facebook and other social media tools.

The inquisitive senior was one of dozens of Ontario retirement-home residents who attended Internet information sessions as part of a high- school community service project hatched by Cassaday’s younger sisters Kascha, 18, and Macaulee, 16, in 2009.

Their brainchild, inspired by how their own relationships with their grandparents changed when the old folks became Internet-savvy, inspired Cyber-Seniors, a training program designed to help seniors get online by teaming them with tech-savvy teenage volunteers.


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Astonished by how these peculiar pairings were bridging the generation gap through technology, Cassaday, 26, couldn’t resist making a movie.

“I started off as a video-grapher planning to make promotional material for the program, but I quickly realized this would be a fantastic documentary,” said the Toronto filmmaker who will attend Saturday’s 4 p.m. screening at the Vic Theatre. “The generational differences between the two groups are so funny, so it was the humour that struck me, but it’s also very touching.”

Indeed it is. The film’s most memorable senior moments include Shura Eadie, 88, using Skype for the first time to communicate with her grandson, his wife and her great-grandchildren who live in Bermuda. Paired with bemused 20-year-old volunteer Max Schellenberg, Eadie cheerfully laments that “people don’t write letters the way they used to” before diving into the digital world.

“I used to be a stenographer,” she tells Max, when he asks if she types. Before long she’s gleefully clicking on family photos online with childlike wonder and wondering how to get more YouTube hits.

Eadie, punctuating almost everything she says with laughter, is an endearing character who eagerly embraces the Internet and even inspires a lively seniors YouTube competition.

“Hi, YouTube, this is Shura,” she says in her debut cooking video showcasing her kitchen where she uses her household iron and tinfoil to make grilled cheese sandwiches.

A sequence in which she communicates in real time via Facebook with retired Royal Air Force pilot Ellard Yeo, 89, is one of many that illustrate how the web has suddenly changed their lives.

“I had a boyfriend years ago and I’d like to know what happened to him. I broke it off,” says another senior, offering one reason why Facebook interests her.

Some of the exchanges are priceless, as when Barbara, a feisty 90-year-old, scolds her teenaged mentor when she admits shedoesn’t know what the Hallelujah Chorus is.

“Young lady, you are un-educated musically,” Barbara deadpans, giving her “the look” before playing a YouTube video to enlighten her.

Meanwhile, Henri Pelletier, 17, can barely keep a straight face over 77-year-old Annette Rapoport’s reaction when he says her computer screen has frozen.

“Yes … it’s cold,” she says.

Cyber-Seniors has plenty such comedy gold, and Cassaday, also an actor (The Smart Woman’s Survival Guide) and member of Toronto’s Nocturnal Emissions comedy troupe, couldn’t resist.

“I’m definitely drawn to comedy,” she said “When I was editing, the first scenes I put together were the super-comedic scenes.”

Another comic highlight was when Marion, 93, proudly declaring she still has all her teeth, gamely agreed to do a hip, amusingly edited rap number, hoping to increase her YouTube hits.

Cassaday said her subjects didn’t do anything they weren’t up for, dismissing potential criticism that the film, slated to open May 2 in New York, was exploiting the seniors.

“When Marion told her daughter about the rapping granny video, she said, ‘What are they doing?’ ” laughed Cassaday. “They were sizing us up.”

Cassaday said she learned to be less intrusive after she caught herself playing it safe — asking Eadie, for instance, whether she needed help doing simple things.

“I think it’s our natural instinct to baby seniors, but once you get to know them you realize ‘No, don’t.’ They’re in full control of what they’re doing.”

Besides the high-tech fun and games, there were sombre moments, such as when Macaulee was diagnosed mid-shoot with cancer, which their grandfather is also battling.

“I was going to focus on my sisters’ relationship with my grandparents so I wondered if I should continue,” said Cassaday, who carried on since Macaulee was cool with it and it was significant story-wise.

The filmmakers, including her mother Brenda Rusnak as producer, were also saddened to learn Eadie died after filming and provided footage her family used during her memorial.

“It’s sad, but the best compliment we got was from her daughter. She said, ‘Thanks for giving Shura a chance to shine at a time in her life when it was least expected.’ ”

Cassaday said there’s another message she hopes to impart besides the obvious one about never being too old to learn something new.

“It makes people realize seniors are cool, but it also shows teenagers are not all jerks,” she said. “They really had fun with the seniors. I hope it inspires teenagers to realize community service doesn’t have to be lame.”

mreid@timescolonist.com