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BYTING THE BULLET : Senior Citizens Are Signing On to Information Age Technology

May 05, 1989|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Times Staff Writer

Computers are not just for kids, according to Leisure World resident Herb Rosner.

Since buying a personal computer of his own recently, Rosner has become hooked: He set up a database to keep track of family birthdays and other vital statistics, bought a bridge program to help his wife, Helen, learn the game and joined two computer user clubs.

"The ability to work with computers has added a rich new dimension to my life," Rosner said. "It opened a new world of possibilities for me."

Rosner, 69, got his introduction to computers through a Saddleback College class offered at the Leisure World retirement community in Laguna Hills.

Senior citizens also can plug into the electronic age through a new program at Cal State Fullerton. In March, the college opened the doors of the county's first SeniorNet computer center, only the second such center in Southern California.

The center, which has five personal computers and a laser printer, is in the Ruby Gerontology Center on campus and is operated through the university's Continuing Learning Experience program. It not only offers computer courses taught by senior citizens for senior citizens, it also offers its users a chance to connect with other older adults across the country over the SeniorNet electronic network.

SeniorNet, the brainchild of University of San Francisco professor Mary Furlong, is a national nonprofit computer network that offers a growing number of users access to databases that collect information of interest to senior citizens. In addition, its users can take advantage of features such as electronic mail and open forums to do anything from trading recipes to lobbying lawmakers.

Jeffry Young, associate director of the Ruby Gerontology Center, said he hopes to make the Cal State Fullerton SeniorNet site the hub of a consortium of personal computer "kiosks" located any place in the county where senior citizens gather--libraries, nursing homes, senior centers, even doctors' offices.

In fact, the SeniorNet program has already begun stirring interest--more than 120 senior citizens have expressed interest in the Cal State Fullerton computer classes, which begin in June.

"We don't want to be left behind," said Nikki Reece of Fullerton, a 73-year-old computer novice who has signed up for the introductory class.

"We're trying to prove that seniors are as smart as kids," said Ted Smith, 72, also of Fullerton, who hopes that the SeniorNet classes will help him use a computer in his part-time consulting business.

The idea behind the program is to bring "wisdom to the information age," Furlong said in a telephone interview. "The older adults in this country are a very important resource, and SeniorNet can give seniors access to each other and to everybody."

One of Furlong's goals is to create a vast "electronic city," something to help senior citizens overcome the isolation that many older Americans suffer. "The people most in need of information services are those with limited mobility," Furlong said. For those in nursing or rest homes in particular, she added, "this does represent their window on the world."

Young said that many older adults find it difficult to cope with the role losses--parenting and career--that typically come with aging. "You've lost the two major things that define you," Young said. "Later life is a time of new roles." A computer system with a networking feature may ease the transition to these new roles, bringing them into focus.

"This is a way of really plugging them in and keeping them actively involved with life," said Craig MacDonald, an area manager for Pacific Bell. The company gave a $12,000 grant for the Fullerton SeniorNet site and also sponsored a SeniorNet center in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Two sections of the SeniorNet introductory computer course will be offered at Cal State Fullerton in June, and two more will be offered in July. The classes meet twice weekly for 4 weeks. At the end of August, 12 classes will be offered, covering an introduction to computers, word processing, spreadsheets and telecommunications.

(Registration costs are included in the membership fees for Continuing Learning Experience; the fees are $40 for the summer or $55 per regular semester. Non-members are charged a fee of $25 per class. Membership in SeniorNet is $10 for individuals, $15 for couples. The Fullerton computer lab is open for use outside class hours free to SeniorNet students and Continuing Learning Experience members.)

SeniorNet was begun in 1986 with five sites. It now has 25, from Framingham, Mass., in the East to Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. (There also is one in Calgary, Canada.) There are two in Southern California; the other is in a doctor's office in San Diego. Senior citizens who have their own personal computers and modems can take part in SeniorNet at home as individual members.

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