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Senior Citizens Ease Loneliness On-Line : Technology: Volunteers in North Carolina study whether e-mail and the Internet can help.


DURHAM, N.C. — Since she had a stroke, Audrey Henderson has had trouble writing letters. She can't grip a pen well with her right hand. Recently, however, she volunteered for a computer study and discovered a new world of communication.

"My daughters both have e-mail in their offices," she said. "I have been able to communicate with them."

Typing is easier than writing and erasing mistakes is simple, said Henderson, 78. She and 15 other volunteers at the Methodist Retirement Community here are involved in a study to determine whether the loneliness older people sometimes feel can be eased or erased by electronic messages known as e-mail and connection with the Internet, the global data network.

"What we expect to see are increases in people's psychosocial well-being, how they view life and how it affects their sense of loneliness," said Dr. Heidi White, who is conducting the study through the Duke University Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development.

The study concludes in late January, but the three Macintosh computers donated by another local retiree will stay at the center.

Already, the program has spurred interest in computers for communication. The Rev. Douglas Pitts bought his own computer after entering the study. He said he wanted to be able to spend more time at the keyboard surfing the net in his own apartment.

"I've got time. I've quit preaching and I'm going to use it. I would like to communicate with people, students I've known from all around the world," said Pitts, a retired chaplain at the University of Minnesota, who moved to the retirement home 5 1/2 years ago.

"I was pretty much at the end of the line," said Pitts, who flew with bush pilots to carry the gospel to Indians in northern Canada after he retired from the university. "This is a new challenge. I haven't met it yet."

A recent Times Mirror poll showed that 9% of people 65 and older use a personal computer at home. That figure is up 2 percentage points--nearly 600,000 people--from 18 months ago, the study said.

Recently, the Rand Corp. released a report calling for all Americans to have access to electronic mail because of the important social, economic and political benefits.

"It's very exciting," said Grace Poe, 74, a retired homemaker. "My granddaughters 7 and 10 can do anything with the computer. They send me pictures. It has stimulated me a lot to learn more."

Genevieve Snyder, 80, has received messages from children and grandchildren scattered across the country.

One thing Snyder and others must do, said computer instructor Mark Handler, is understand there's no right and wrong and not be nervous about using the equipment. Handler is encouraging the buddy system, but the retirees seem reluctant to admit failings to each other.

"We feel that by using e-mail and the Internet, this will be a social intervention for these people," White said.

The average age of those in the study is 77. Participants were interviewed about feelings of loneliness and then given basic instruction in operating the computer and getting onto the Internet through an on-line account.

Herb Halbrecht, a retired business executive, pushed the idea after enrolling in courses at Duke's Institute for Learning in Retirement and getting an e-mail account. He also bought the computers used at the retirement home.

"I thought old people can get lonely and maybe e-mail can help ease the loneliness, which can be one of the most debilitating aspects of old age," he said.

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