Last year, Lois Lippincott of Orinda, Calif., wanted to join the Endowed Joans, a San Francisco Bay area women's investment club. But she had a problem. "They require you to be computer literate," says the 65-year-old retired secretary, who long was intimidated by things mechanical. It took a slow-paced computer class taught by a fellow senior to ease her fear. Now she researches stocks so thoroughly on the Internet that her broker "snaps to attention when I walk in his office," she says.
More seniors than ever are plugging into the Net. Still, an estimated 90% of those over 50 don't exploit the technology because of lack of awareness, trepidation, or physical disabilities, according to Age Light Institute (www.agelight.org), an advocacy group in Clyde Hill, Wash., dedicated to making technology accessible to the elderly. To overcome the hurdles, they need proper motivation, training, and equipment.
Seniors, like everyone else, need a compelling reason to expend effort to learn something new. Lippincott was lured by the Net's easy access to investment information, but others may be more interested in sending e-mail, playing bridge online, or researching health concerns. "Finding that hook is essential," says Dick Schoech, editor of the Journal of Technology in Human Services. Yet even if the incentive is there, many seniors remain skittish. They didn't grow up with PCs, and most likely didn't use them at work. Richard Sherman, author of Mr. Modem's Guide for Seniors (Sybex, $19.99), receives hundreds of letters from elders scared of computer viruses and privacy violations. "If that's all you knew about computers, you'd be pretty fearful, too," he says.
BIG-KEY KEYBOARDS. To allay concerns, national organizations such as SeniorNet (www.seniornet.com, 800 747-6848) and Green Thumb (www.greenthumb.org, 800 901-7965), as well as an increasing number of community colleges, offer computer classes for the over-50 set. Sherman says peer instructors are usually best and advises seniors against relying on relatives to teach computer proficiency. Elders also benefit from classes that allow ample practice time. But when it comes to getting an older person a computer, hand-me-downs are generally a bad idea. A sputtering jalopy of a machine will only lead to frustration. "You want their interaction with the computer to be as pleasant as possible, or they're going to throw up their hands and quit," says Craig Spiezle, president of Age Light.
Regardless of the type of computer, experts advise deleting superfluous programs and icons that clutter the screen. If vision is a problem, go to the control panel in the Windows or Macintosh operating systems to adjust such features as font size and contrast. Control panel also makes it possible to single click rather than double click the mouse to activate programs. A host of software and computer accessories may make things easier, too. Screen magnification programs such as Ai Squared's ZoomText ($395-$595) and Henter-Joyce's MAGic ($295-$395) enlarge text up to 20 times the size of the largest font available in standard systems. There are also big-key keyboards ($160-$400) with programmable function buttons (for launching frequently used programs, for example) available from companies such as IntelliTools and Greystone Digital.
Seniors with arthritis or palsy may find softball-size trackballs ($50-$70) by Logitech or Kensington Technology Group more manageable than a much smaller mouse. And a touch screen ($800-$1,000) by Microtouch Systems would obviate the need to grip anything at all. Get rid of both mouse and keyboard with new speech recognition programs offered by Dragon Systems and Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products. So rigged and reassured, seniors can go high tech without high anxiety.