Wired for Life

Forget the stereotypes of new technology being only for younger people. Seniors in growing numbers are exercising their mental muscles by...

Forget the stereotypes of new technology being only for younger people. Seniors in growing numbers are exercising their mental muscles by surfing the Web, e-mailing friends and family, and trying out new software to research health issues, travel possibilities, and many other topics of interest. And area retirement communities, looking for new ways to appeal to tomorrow's residents, are responding to the high-tech challenge. Many already offer such options as computer clubs and classes; others are investigating computer centers and high-speed Internet connections as enticements that may soon prove even more appealing than shopping shuttles and concert outings as older Americans get on-line.

"New learning is key to keeping our brains active," says Susan Burgess, director of community programs for Cadbury Commons, a Cambridge retirement community that has had a computer program in place since soon after its 1996 opening. "We all need something that will challenge the mind." Nancy Burakoff, marketing director for the continuing-care and retirement community Orchard Cove, in Canton, reports, "When people inquire about our community, the computer facility is one of the things we tell them about. They want to know if they can hook up their computers in their apartments."

Increasingly the answer is yes, as senior housing developments and retirement communities respond to the growth in computer literacy among all ages. Although residents remain largely free to chose their own Internet service provider (the Internet hook-up--such as the popular America Online or CompuServe--that functions much like a long-distance phone company to provide different services and amenities with a variety of price packages), more and more communities are making sure that computers with Internet capability are also available to all through computer resource centers, or "labs," that offer a variety of machines and software.

Accessibility, however, is only the most basic amenity. Retirement communities generally are also responding to the rise in on-line literacy with a two-pronged effort: support and education. Support is achieved by making facilities "computer friendly" to those who retire with some computer know-how, whether or not they arrive with any equipment of their own. Most commonly this happens through computer clubs that allow residents to brainstorm while troubleshooting new programs, or simply to trade Web shopping finds. At Kendal at Hanover, in New Hampshire, admissions and marketing director Hélène Rothermund says the computer lab has encouraged residents to share knowledge about building Web pages. At Carleton-Willard, in Bedford, Massachusetts, residents have created an e-mail directory, and share their discoveries and issues. "A lot of computer owners join because we like to discuss our problems," says club chairwoman Elise Wilde, 82, who works on an Apple computer. She is now researching the different systems used by her neighbors, including IBM-type PCs and the new Macintosh iMacs. The focus, she stresses, is on participation: "I'm learning along with everyone else."

Many residents of retirement communities also avail themselves of external resources, such as peer-learning groups sponsored by Harvard's Institute for Learning in Retirement or the Greater Boston Seniors Computer Group, which meets monthly from September through June at the Newton Senior Center. "We try to be a warm and friendly group," says GBSCG member and former chairman Robert Bowers. The 200-member club regularly invites guest speakers and lecturers, such as Boston Globe computer columnist Hiawatha Bray and representatives from the MIT Media Lab.

Bowers, a resident at Brookhaven in Lexington, is part of a group researching fiber-optic hook-ups, the cutting-edge in Internet technology, for their retirement community. The 77-year-old retired engineer also participates in the second opportunity offered by many retirement communities: on-site education. For the past two years, he has taught computer classes aimed at demystifying e-mail and the Internet for novices--which basically means, he says, convincing them not to be afraid.

MIT alumnus Stanley Golembe, who teaches his peers at Orchard Cove, agrees that mostly the senior novices have nothing to fear but fear itself. "They're afraid that if they hit the wrong key, they'll wipe out the hard drive and damage the computer," says Golembe, who has been involved with computer technology "since the punch-card days."

Bowers attributes his students' nerves to simple lack of computer experience. "My generation didn't grow up with computers, so they have a fear of computers," he says. To break through that panic, he says, "I'll pull the plug and they see the screen go blank." That way they learn "the worst that happens is that they get admonished [by the computer] for not turning it off properly. Once they get over the fear, they become quite proficient."

Of course, students of a certain age may face other complications, but the teachers usually find ways around those. For students with vision problems, Bowers sets the computer screen to display type at an easier-to-read 18-point size. For those with physical ailments such as arthritis or a shaky grip, explains Golembe, "we manage by having them do everything on the keyboard and avoiding the mouse."

Once seniors are on-line, the world opens up. Some residents create spreadsheets and research financial information, says Gwen Meserve, director of resident services at RiverWoods at Exeter, which is considering setting up a computer center after bringing in a volunteer last year to give individual instruction. Other Web surfers pursue individual interests in the arts, keep track of sports teams in other cities, or trace family ties: both Stan Golembe and Bob Bowers research their family trees using Web resources. Bowers says that many of his students link to the Massachusetts General Hospital Web page to read the latest in medical research, and peruse many of the newspapers and journals that can be found on-line.

E-mail, however, is the main impetus for computer proficiency, seniors overwhelmingly report. For people who may have limited physical mobility and whose friends and family may live around the globe, the accessibility and moderate cost of these electronic messages are entrancing. Best of all, this new form of communication offers an immediate connection--electronic and emotional--to the younger generation. "If you send a grandchild $20 in an envelope with a letter, you may not get an answer," says Bowers. "If you e-mail a message, that guarantees an answer." "The grandchildren think it's wonderful that grandma and grandpa are smart enough to use the computer," agrees Golembe, with tongue only partly in cheek.

Sometimes, e-mail is not only the best way for seniors to keep in touch, it's the only way. When Elise Wilde's godson was injured in Australia, she used e-mail to keep in contact with him. "I'd have to get up at 5 in the morning to talk to him by phone," she recalls. "With e-mail I could send a message and he could read it when it was convenient and send a reply back."

That crisis is past, but she remains on-line and in touch with people around the world. "I have friends in Australia and Canada," she notes, "and a young friend who was in France for three months. We corresponded weekly. I check my e-mail every morning," says this high-tech octogenarian, one of many in the growing population of happily wired seniors. "I love it."

Clea Simon '83 thoroughly enjoyed talking to so many adventurous people.  

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