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For Seniors

Computer Link Opens Gateway to the World

January 23, 1994|Linda Feldman | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lillian Painter awoke at 3 a.m., slumped over her computer keyboard. It was not a heart attack. She had forgotten to go to bed.

Painter says she has an addiction so strong that it sometimes forces her to forgo food and sleep. But her habit has an upside: It keeps her mind active and helps stave off loneliness, putting her into contact with strangers who live as far away as Alaska or as close as a 20-minute freeway ride from her Culver City home.

Painter is hooked on SeniorNet, a telecommunications service for the growing number of computer-literate seniors. Communicating through computers at home or at senior centers, SeniorNet users encounter each other in electronic "chat rooms," identifying with nicknames like Eezgoin, Pony 67, Toner King, Linger2 (who is married to Loiter) and Polly B.

Not only do people chat on SeniorNet, but they also start business projects, take part in forums, discuss hobbies--even party and fall in love. SeniorNet regulars say that during one session, they even saved someone's life.

"Nobody cares what you look like. You could be sitting there in an old robe with your false teeth out," says Polly B., aka Polly Black of Woodland Hills. "There are none of the natural barriers which keep people apart. We can tell how people feel from how they type. Sometimes you can tell if someone is crying by what they type."

Worldwide, there are an estimated 11,000 SeniorNet users. Some cannot afford home computers, so they tap into the network at one of 55 SeniorNet computer learning centers, 14 of which are in California.

One such center is in Room 7 of the Culver City Senior Center. Outside the room, older people play solitaire and bingo and listen to homespun poetry. Inside, five computers are ready to open up new worlds to the curious.

According to one of the teachers, Leonard Bassis, more than 300 seniors have taken computer training and close to 80 are on a waiting list. Many come for the experience; others want to learn the high-tech language of their grandchildren. The center, also sponsored in part by PacBell, hopes to attract more people like Lillian Painter.

"Learning about computers is like eating a hot fudge sundae. I can't stop," Painter says. "It's also something I look forward to--an opening to the gateway of a new world."

*

Some SeniorNet users, like Polly B., tap the network using home computers. Polly had never used a computer when her son, Larry, introduced her to SeniorNet two years ago. She was a 64-year-old widow who wasn't doing very much with her life and she panicked at the mere mention of the word computer. Her son and grandson live with her, and each owns a PC, but Polly had never gone near the machines.

Fifteen minutes with SeniorNet, and two years later Polly owns a Packard Bell 486SX 25 multimedia system with CD ROM, one of eight computers in the Black household. Recently, she invited SeniorNet users--by computer, of course--to a holiday party at her house.

Twenty people showed up in person. Twenty-one more attended electronically, including Riggs from Alaska, to share the fun with Polly B., Toner King and the gang that tried to type straight.

Wednesday evenings in SeniorNet's "Cocktail Hour." Someone serves up a subject and the discussion begins. Sometimes the chat gets serious. One night they discussed legalizing prostitution. They took a poll and were split 50-50.

Sometimes the chat prompts action. Polly B. remembers when Bob of Colorado came on line and there were too many spaces between his typed words. "Everyone immediately typed, 'What's the matter?' He replied he couldn't breathe," she said. "We all said, 'Get a doctor,' He said, 'No.' Well, someone who lived in Washington called the police in Colorado and they found him with his lung collapsed. Since then Bob has stopped smoking, he's back on line and there are no extra spaces between his words."

She added: "We have something in common. We're there for each other."

*

SeniorNet also offers forums, which are more specialized information-sharing sessions. All of the topics are initiated by the members. A couple in Florida, for instance, set up a forum to create an evacuation and disaster manual. With the click of a mouse or the stroke of a key, such subjects as atheism, cooking, economics, grandparenting, writing and gay and lesbian senior issues are also available.

Larry Marinell of West Hollywood is gay. He says the network proved particularly comforting when two of his friends died in the space of several days, ending a total of 100 years of friendship.

"Between AIDS and age, I am dealing with a lot of grief these days, so I get up at 1:30 a.m. and turn on my computer," he said. "I listen to other people. I'm lonely. I correspond with a writer in San Diego. There are romantic overtones. It's the safest sex I know. I can't imagine life without the health and wellness forum."

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