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 youngerpeople. Seniors in growing numbers are exercising their mentalmuscles by surfing the Web, e-mailing friends and family, andtrying 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 respondingto the high-tech challenge. Many already offer such options ascomputer clubs and classes; others are investigating computercenters and high-speed Internet connections as enticements thatmay soon prove even more appealing than shopping shuttles andconcert outings as older Americans get on-line.
"New learning is key to keeping our brains active,"says Susan Burgess, director of community programs for CadburyCommons, a Cambridge retirement community that has had a computerprogram in place since soon after its 1996 opening. "We allneed something that will challenge the mind." Nancy Burakoff,marketing director for the continuing-care and retirement communityOrchard Cove, in Canton, reports, "When people inquire aboutour community, the computer facility is one of the things we tellthem about. They want to know if they can hook up their computersin their apartments."
Increasingly the answer is yes, as senior housing developmentsand retirement communities respond to the growth in computer literacyamong all ages. Although residents remain largely free to chosetheir own Internet service provider (the Internet hook-up--suchas the popular America Online or CompuServe--that functions muchlike a long-distance phone company to provide different servicesand amenities with a variety of price packages), more and morecommunities are making sure that computers with Internet capabilityare 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. Retirementcommunities generally are also responding to the rise in on-lineliteracy with a two-pronged effort: support and education. Supportis achieved by making facilities "computer friendly"to those who retire with some computer know-how, whether or notthey arrive with any equipment of their own. Most commonly thishappens through computer clubs that allow residents to brainstormwhile troubleshooting new programs, or simply to trade Web shoppingfinds. At Kendal at Hanover, in New Hampshire, admissions andmarketing director Hélène Rothermund says the computerlab has encouraged residents to share knowledge about buildingWeb pages. At Carleton-Willard, in Bedford, Massachusetts, residentshave created an e-mail directory, and share their discoveriesand issues. "A lot of computer owners join because we liketo discuss our problems," says club chairwoman Elise Wilde,82, who works on an Apple computer. She is now researching thedifferent systems used by her neighbors, including IBM-type PCsand 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 themselvesof external resources, such as peer-learning groups sponsoredby Harvard's Institute for Learning in Retirement or the GreaterBoston Seniors Computer Group, which meets monthly from Septemberthrough June at the Newton Senior Center. "We try to be awarm and friendly group," says GBSCG member and former chairmanRobert Bowers. The 200-member club regularly invites guest speakersand lecturers, such as Boston Globe computer columnist HiawathaBray and representatives from the MIT Media Lab.
Bowers, a resident at Brookhaven in Lexington, is part of agroup researching fiber-optic hook-ups, the cutting-edge in Internettechnology, for their retirement community. The 77-year-old retiredengineer also participates in the second opportunity offered bymany retirement communities: on-site education. For the past twoyears, he has taught computer classes aimed at demystifying e-mailand the Internet for novices--which basically means, he says,convincing them not to be afraid.
MIT alumnus Stanley Golembe, who teaches his peers at OrchardCove, agrees that mostly the senior novices have nothing to fearbut fear itself. "They're afraid that if they hit the wrongkey, they'll wipe out the hard drive and damage the computer,"says Golembe, who has been involved with computer technology "sincethe punch-card days."
Bowers attributes his students' nerves to simple lack of computerexperience. "My generation didn't grow up with computers,so they have a fear of computers," he says. To break throughthat panic, he says, "I'll pull the plug and they see thescreen go blank." That way they learn "the worst thathappens is that they get admonished [by the computer] for notturning it off properly. Once they get over the fear, they becomequite proficient."
Of course, students of a certain age may face other complications,but the teachers usually find ways around those. For studentswith vision problems, Bowers sets the computer screen to displaytype at an easier-to-read 18-point size. For those with physicalailments such as arthritis or a shaky grip, explains Golembe,"we manage by having them do everything on the keyboard andavoiding the mouse."
Once seniors are on-line, the world opens up. Some residentscreate spreadsheets and research financial information, says GwenMeserve, director of resident services at RiverWoods at Exeter,which is considering setting up a computer center after bringingin a volunteer last year to give individual instruction. OtherWeb surfers pursue individual interests in the arts, keep trackof sports teams in other cities, or trace family ties: both StanGolembe and Bob Bowers research their family trees using Web resources.Bowers says that many of his students link to the MassachusettsGeneral Hospital Web page to read the latest in medical research,and peruse many of the newspapers and journals that can be foundon-line.
E-mail, however, is the main impetus for computer proficiency,seniors overwhelmingly report. For people who may have limitedphysical mobility and whose friends and family may live aroundthe globe, the accessibility and moderate cost of these electronicmessages are entrancing. Best of all, this new form of communicationoffers an immediate connection--electronic and emotional--to theyounger generation. "If you send a grandchild $20 in an envelopewith a letter, you may not get an answer," says Bowers. "Ifyou e-mail a message, that guarantees an answer." "Thegrandchildren think it's wonderful that grandma and grandpa aresmart enough to use the computer," agrees Golembe, with tongueonly partly in cheek.
Sometimes, e-mail is not only the best way for seniors to keepin touch, it's the only way. When Elise Wilde's godson was injuredin Australia, she used e-mail to keep in contact with him. "I'dhave 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 couldread it when it was convenient and send a reply back."
That crisis is past, but she remains on-line and in touch withpeople around the world. "I have friends in Australia andCanada," she notes, "and a young friend who was in Francefor three months. We corresponded weekly. I check my e-mail everymorning," says this high-tech octogenarian, one of many inthe growing population of happily wired seniors. "I loveit."Clea Simon '83 thoroughly enjoyed talkingto so many adventurous people.
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