SUN CITY CENTER — Mitzi Walsh is a hands-on person who isn't afraid of technology.
She, like so many other retired seniors, wants to know how to use the latest smart phones and tablets so she can stay in touch with her children who live as far away as Singapore.
The Sun City Center resident from Kings Point is determined to learn how to share photos with her family and do a video call.
"I'm a gadget person and as long as you show me how to do it, I will get it."
Get it she did along with her husband, Bob, who were among 80 guests at an interactive workshop to teach the latest mobile technology to seniors and boomers, many of whom are newcomers.
Held at the Freedom Plaza retirement community, the full day seminar was part of a national series of educational workshops called the "Reconnect Tour," sponsored by AT&T, in alliance with Senior TechRally, an experiential media company that wants to help connect seniors to their family and friends through mobile technology.
A group of specially trained instructors lead the tour, which also included a stop at the University of South Florida on Thursday.
They walk attendees through the basic functions of a mobile device, answering questions along the way so seniors feel comfortable and confident using the devices.
During the workshop, guests received a handbook and were introduced to a wide range of functions, including, text messaging, video calling, e-books, photo sharing and applications such as maps and weather.
In the afternoon, the group switched to learning about a wireless tablet that featured an 8-inch display for watching videos, checking email and video chatting over Wi-Fi.
The boomer and senior generations are the largest growing segments of the mobile technology population. The opportunity to learn and get comfortable using the devices will open up a new communications experience for them, according to Michele Money-Carson, an AT&T representative.
"A lot of the folks taking advantage of these tech rallies are grandparents who have grandkids who are teenagers and young adults," Money-Carson said. "You've got to be able to communicate with them on their level. If you're grandson is in a holiday concert, you can view the video on a tablet and then share it with your friends.
"There's a lot of good in this technology. I think that once this age group becomes more knowledgeable about it, they will really embrace it."
So many seniors responded to the pilot program last year that Senior TechRally decided to expand the program coast to coast. Field manager Jenny LeBrecht says it's an evolving situation that is born of necessity.
"I realize technology bypassed them," LeBrecht said. "What was intrinsic and intuitive to me while growing up, bypassed our senior citizens. They weren't exposed to it on a daily basis.
"We understand that everyone learns differently and that's the beauty of this. Some people learn by hands on and others are audio-visual people. So, we try to address every end of it."
LeBrecht says the tablets are very popular this year and well-suited to a senior's lifestyle needs. They are larger than smartphones, easy to hold and the fonts can be enlarged so seniors with visual impairments can enjoy reading e-books, searching the Internet, watching videos and video calling.
"I still hear from attendees who are thrilled that they can read books again," LeBrecht said. "One woman contacted me whose son is autistic. Now, when she leaves the house, he can connect with her on her tablet. He doesn't get agitated or upset because he sees his mom in real time on video. It just changes peoples' lives."
Luana Brooks and her husband, Bob, attended the event because the mobile store in the mall wasn't the place they could ask a lot of questions. As novice smartphone users, they couldn't pass up the hands-on aspect.
"This isn't so scary when you have people showing you what to do," Luana Brooks said. "Just seeing my family do it, makes me want to do it too."
Natalie Esposito, a Freedom Plaza resident, was serious while her husband, Dr. Fred Esposito, took it all in stride.
"I prefer to talk to people and look them in the eye," Fred said. "I think the tablet is more like a toy that's entertainment for me rather than a necessity."
As a perk to reinforcing what the Sun City Center seniors learned at TechRally and to take the intimidation out of going to a store, AT&T Mobility on Causeway Boulevard in Brandon will open its store to seniors an hour early sometime in January. Attendees can visit, bring their mobile devices, ask more questions, test out other products in the store and discuss financing.
Regional sales manager Lou Moyano says that from his experience seniors are buying in the same fashion as almost any other demographic. The key is to ask open-ended questions about their daily life, their family needs, their physical abilities and their budgets to find the right technology that is really suited for them.
"All they need is a little training, a little patience, a little side by side to show them just a couple of buttons need to be pressed in order for their lives to change."