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Seniors let down Web barriers

More elderly people are learning their way around computers and the Internet.

July 15, 2007|Mary Gail Hare | Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Jim Redding refuses to own a cellphone. And a Blackberry or an iPod? Out of the question.

Yet within the past year, Redding, 69, has become not only computer savvy but an avid Internet surfer too. After taking a free course for seniors at his local library, Redding sends e-mails, organizes boat inspections for his yacht club, even drops in on YouTube to keep current on videos.

"I was dragged kicking and screaming" into the computer age, he said. "I used to gripe about it, but I got the basics and just kept seeing what more I could learn."

Redding is hardly alone: Seniors in recent years have been getting on the Internet at a rate that far outpaces the rest of the population. Since 2000, the number of Americans age 65 and above using the Internet rose more than 160%, said Susannah Fox, an associate director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which tracks the social impact of Internet use. Over the same period, no other age segment grew by more than 70%.

For many, it's a question of economics: Seniors seek access to the lower-priced goods, including drugs, that Internet commerce offers. They also want to keep up with the information that increasingly has shifted to the Web, and stay connected with friends and family who communicate via cyberspace.

"They hear, 'For a lower price or more information, check our website,' " said Tobey Dichter, founder of Generations on Line, a nonprofit group dedicated to Internet literacy for older adults. "They want access to resources, everything from government help to getting discounts."

Advocates for older Americans believe the trend is crucial to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

"We would like to see those numbers go up and for seniors to be more engaged," said Tiffany Lundquist, spokesperson for the Maryland office of the AARP, the American Assn. of Retired Persons. "Computers are an important way to stay connected and that's important to successful aging."

AARP offers many courses -- including a driver-safety program -- on its website, in addition to listings of help centers, medical assistance and prescription information.

When Medicare made sweeping changes to its benefit plans a year ago, the most accurate and up-to-date information was on the Internet, Fox said. "Brochures on the many different plans were often out-of-date soon after they were printed."

Yet the obstacles to becoming regular computer users -- learning a new vocabulary and skills, as well as paying for the technology -- often deter people, Dichter said.

"Many seniors can't see enough reason to enter cyberspace, when the doors are too hard to open," she said. "But then seniors are shut out without electronic access to resources."

His Philadelphia-based Generations Online works to simplify Internet use for those age 65 and older, Dichter said, offering software to libraries and senior centers -- anything to get seniors over the hurdles.

Computer manufacturers have made scant effort to design hardware or software products for seniors, but Dichter has seen a marked increase in the number of training classes nationwide. "We want seniors to at least experience the Internet," she said.

On a recent weekday morning at the Aberdeen branch of the Harford County library, a group of seniors was immersed in the online experience. They practiced finding legal, medical and prescription information, contacting officials and government agencies, and even checking on the weather.

"We had one man who quickly learned to research tax records and found out he was owed money," said Cathy Walther, 71, a library volunteer who helps teach classes.

Branch manager Gregory Wollon led the class of six -- though the sessions typically draw as many as 18 people -- with the image from her computer screen projected onto a wall at the front of the room.

"Computers really are the greatest assistance device since false teeth," she told the class.

"We can handle everyone from the never-touched to the advanced student," she said later. "People will learn if they find something to interest them."

The group had just moved onto the mouse tutorial when Mary Puchalski, 75, entered the darkened room.

"It's my first time," she told the class. "I don't know how to start, but I thought I better learn how."

A few of the students worked on browsing the Internet and playing computer games, but Puchalski stuck with the basics, with an assist from Walther.

"I worked in a factory, not with computers," Puchalski said. "I feel like I am missing a lot of things by not knowing computers. I want to keep learning."

For Walther, embracing the Internet has affected many aspects of her life. A diabetic, she finds foods -- and recipes -- that meet her nutritional requirements but often are not available at the local grocery store.

"I Google search and buy it online in bulk," she said. "That's how I found Irish oatmeal."

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