A new project in Chester is proving to be a lifeline for the elderly offering them digital skills they thought they might never master.

While the term silver surfers has been banded around for years, many OAPs do not so easily get to grips with computers, laptops and smartphones.

But the Here and Now/Digital Buddies project, based at the new Storyhouse arts complex and library in Northgate Street, is helping them to overcome their trepidation of technology and help them use it to make their lives simpler.

The scheme, run by Heather Backstrom and Alan Smith, as well as a group of dedicated volunteers, aims to support the elderly with digital technology, such as Skype and FaceTime, Facebook and email.

There are iPads to use, but many bring their own into the sessions, which have included tips on digital photography.

Attending the weekly Friday sessions has enabled Dee Walters, 86, from Handbridge, to pick up the skills she needs to shop online and that has proved important for her since she had to give up driving.

She said: “I bought an iPad but didn’t know how to use it – I was struggling to get to grips with the settings for sorting out photos. But I came to an open day here and I’ve learnt how to do digital photographs.

“I also wanted to learn about how to do my shopping online as I don’t drive any more. It has been wonderful and I can now do my shopping with the iPad which is vital for me.”

Those attending get practical help and can pair up with digital buddies for one-to-one sessions where the problems thwarting them using their gadgets are tackled.

“When you come in you get a slip where you can write down a question or problem, such as backing up an iPad, and the buddies will help you out,” added Dee. “It has helped me a lot and now I want to learn about Skype and Facebook too.”

Heather and Alan launched the scheme in January after winning funding for two years from Brightlife – an Age UK scheme aimed at tackling social isolation and loneliness among the elderly in Cheshire West and Chester.

Nearly 10,000 over-50s in the region miss out on the vital social contact that most of us take for granted, while nationally more than one million older people say they are always or often feel lonely – with two-fifths saying television is their main form of company.

Here and Now Chester/Digital Buddies hopes to be self-sustainable in the future and its organisers have been encouraged by the take-up of its services, so much so they have split the sessions into two groups to cope with the demand.

Liz Molloy, 85, also from Handbridge, is one of the regulars. She has learned how to use Skype and email.

“My late husband had a computer and my kids said I should learn – but it was double Dutch to me and I could do nothing with it.

“But now I can Skype and do email which is very useful. To be honest teaching me is like teaching a five-year-old, but they are very patient.”

Alan, who works at the University of Chester, brings his experience in computers and technology, while Heather has a background in teaching and psychology.

“We started out running a group in Blacon where we have been using iPads and tech,” explained project officer Heather.

“There are some lovely stories. We have a 97-year-old whose daughter moved to Australia.

“He can’t travel out there to see here, but has learned how to Skype and he is now able to talk to his grand-daughter.

“They can come in with anything that is bothering them. They bring in their iPads, smartphones and laptops and we aim to help them out.

“We’re also hot on internet scammers and we have had Santander come in to do a course on staying safe online. They can also access other services in the area.”

He added: “When they come in first we find they are scared to break their device or gadget – but it is not traditional teaching it is user led and we don’t rush anybody.

“We do home visits and we go to sheltered housing schemes too. A big part of it is inclusivity and we have students from the University of Chester who volunteer their time.”

Computer science student Amith Thilakarathne has spent time as an intern and says he enjoys watching the progress made by service users as their technological conundrums fade away.

He said: “I used to be carer and so I know about the difficulties the elderly face with technology. But you can see the progress people are making.

“It is very specific – if they have a smartphone and they can’t get into the email we will reset (sync) it for them.

“One lady had trouble with pictures and she wanted to make a folder, it is simple stuff really but hard for them initially.”

l For more information about the Here and Now/Digital Buddies project you can call Alan on 07932 556062 or Heather on 07958 611618 or email digitalbuddies