Seniors, computers click
By Chris Cobbs | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted September 10, 2001
The World Wide Web is an out-of-this-world experience for 68-year-old Nancy Collins, who goes online to stay in touch with son-in-law Luke Skywalker.
E-mail allows the Maitland grandmother to keep up with her far-flung family -- a son in Ethiopia as well as daughter Marilou living in California with her husband, Mark Hamill, who played Luke in the Star Wars movies. Collins also comparison shops for plane tickets, searches for information about osteoporosis, revises her Web page and indulges in daily instant-messaging sessions with a buddy list of more than a dozen people.
But the study also found that those who do go online tend to be like Collins in their enthusiasm for it. Although wired seniors make up just 4 percent of Americans on the Internet, they're more likely than others to go there every day, says the report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
"Once seniors go online, they love it," said Susannah Fox, director of research for the Pew project, which surveyed 26,094 adults between March and December 2000 and has issued a series of Internet-use reports this year.
Seniors who go online tend to be better educated and enjoy a higher income, the Pew study found.
"One-fourth of wired seniors live in a household with an income of more than $75,000 a year," Fox said. "Overall, only about 10 percent of seniors have an income of that level."
Along with having the money to afford a computer and Web service, wired seniors benefit from having family members who urged them to try the Internet.
"If someone isn't part of a wired family, they're not likely to be Web users," Fox said.
"The data suggests that if you're over 55, you may not have learned to use a PC or the Web while at work, so it has to be family or friends pushing you and encouraging you."
However, when it comes to teaching digital skills, nobody does it better than other seniors.
That's because seniors understand issues like arthritic hands, aging eyes and technophobia, said Tom Springall, president of the SeniorNet Learning Center of Central Florida, which offers classes at the Marks Street Senior Center in Orlando.
"A lot of our seniors were told by their sons or daughters, " 'Computers are easy and you won't have any problems,' " he said.
"Well, it's not so easy for people coming from absolute zero."
The first step is to convince them the PC won't go up in smoke and flames, said volunteer teacher Bert Hood, 80.
After they lose their trepidation, seniors can concentrate on mastering keyboard and mouse techniques, word processing and the Web.
"Once you pick up the basics, you can just sit in your slippers, sip a beer and go anywhere in the world," Hood said.
Seniors who make the effort to become computer-savvy can't seem to get enough of the digital experience.
Consider Rosie Chapman, 70, of Orlando. She sounds like a genuine computer geek.
"A friend gave me an old 486, and I almost fell asleep waiting for Web sites to load," she said. "So I got a new 1.4 GHz Pentium 4 with a 19-inch monitor, CD burner, printer and scanner."
Chapman enjoys researching her family's roots by visiting genealogy Web sites. She also does her banking online and e-mails her two children.
"I can sit on the computer day and night," she said.
Equally devoted is Jeanne Ailes of Winter Park, who asked that her age not be printed but said she is well into senior-citizen status.
She's researching a trip to Croatia and Hungary with her husband, using the Internet to study the configuration of airline seats so they can book in an area that will be comfortable for the long flight.
"I'm also reading up on the history of the area and looking for historic, out-of-the-way hotels where we can have a cup of tea or a drink," she said.
Ailes also looks up tennis scores, shops for shoes and does stock transactions on the Web.
Today's youngsters, growing up in a wired world, won't recall a time when there were no computers and won't face the challenge of learning when they're old. But they won't have the pleasure of helping their peers with a new, enriching experience, either.
"A lady stopped me in the hall and said her grandson in Oregon asked her to thank the man who taught her to use computers," Hood said.
"Hearing that was all the payback I could ever ask."
Chris Cobbs can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5447.
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