SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Marian Noordsy didn't want to lose track of her three eldest granddaughters as they began to leave their parents' nests--heading off to college, a job, one even getting married. All outside South Dakota.
Life has brought changes for each of the young women, and electronic mail is giving Noordsy a ticket to be part of it all.
"The past few weeks have been stressful. I've spent endless nights writing papers and drinking coffee," one of the girls wrote about her college classes.
The computer comfort zone is growing for people born well before the dawn of e-mail and Web pages. Older Americans are discovering the electronic age isn't just for scientists anymore.
Noordsy, 76, whose husband of 52 years has been living in a nursing home since suffering a stroke seven years ago, hears from her girls every week. They write about grades, friends, frustrations. Without e-mail, she fears much of that contact would be lost.
"Truly, they'd never write me," she says. "And that's not all. They have to put a stamp on it, you have to go and mail it. This way it's all taken care of."
A recent poll released by the American Assn. of Retired Persons found that among computer users 45 and older, 81% have access to the Internet. E-mail was their No. 1 online activity, and 90% said they use it. About one in four invest online, and 19% do Internet banking.
For Noordsy, a teacher before her own children were born, e-mail is her primary reason for going online. E-mails kept her posted as one of the granddaughters and her fiance planned their wedding. After the honeymoon, Noordsy got e-mail about how the newlywed was settling into her new routine.
One granddaughter wrote about a new boyfriend.
"I have a new someone in my life," she said. "He's a real cool guy and I hope this stays this way. He even wrote me a song. Quite the romantic fellow he is."
The Center for Active Generations has offered regular classes in computer basics since the fall of 1997 and has 11 computers set up in two labs. The idea is to make computer use convenient for people who might be coming to the center for another reason, such as an exercise class or to eat lunch, says Lisa Howard, the center's program and volunteer director.
"We knew that with the world changing into technology, there was a need to educate older adults," she says.
The response to the classes has been overwhelming. Seven hundred people have taken introductory sessions, and many more are on a waiting list, Howard says. Of those who have completed the basics, she says, about half have gone on to more advanced lessons.
Even with his own personal computer, Bob Stindtman likes coming to the center because he can get help from the staff and use the printers--something he doesn't have at home. He usually spends 10 to 12 hours a week on the Internet, where he follows some of his investments. Sometimes he may even play a round of solitaire.
"Time goes pretty fast. That's OK," says Stindtman, 64, who retired two years ago from a trucking firm.
As recently as a year ago, Kay Hohenecker, 63, knew very little about sending or receiving mail electronically. These days she gets electronic photographs of her infant grandson, Tyson. She keeps in touch with her daughter via e-mail almost every other day.
"I love it," she says.
Concerns over security, privacy and other issues keep older people from using the Internet extensively.
Stindtman, for example, thinks his credit card number was stolen from an Internet transaction. Hohenecker says she's just not comfortable browsing the Web because she's still learning her way around. Some users say they would never consider doing their banking online.
The AARP survey found 73% of older Internet users find information about products and services online but only 39% actually make purchases online.
Bob Gray, a spokesman for state Atty. Gen. Mark Barnett, says the state consumer protection office has not had a lot of complaints about older people getting scammed on the Internet.
"We haven't had a lot of people, period," says Gray.
But as more senior citizens go online, he expects that will change.
Caution makes sense, says Shari Phillips, executive director for the Aberdeen Area Senior Center, which started offering computer classes for the first time last fall.
"Seniors are hounded all the time on being aware of scams, and they are, as they should be, very skeptical about handing over personal information," she says.
For now, Noordsy is happy to have a lifeline to her granddaughters, who are grateful for her letters and advice. They tell her how much she means to them, and they don't forget to ask her to say hello to grandpa.
One e-mail ends, "I love you both very much and can't wait to see you again."
AARP on the Net: http://www.aarp.org