Sending Seniors Into Cyberspace

In the personal-computer lab at Manhattan's Hudson Guild-Fulton Senior Center, children's author Eva Deutsch-Costabel--who says she's "deep into middle age"--is at the keyboard pecking away on her latest story. A couple of chairs away, community activist Katharine Roberts, one of the youngest present, at 68, is writing a position paper on health care. Nearby another retiree is playing PC solitaire.

These relative neophytes to computers are all members of SeniorNet, a nonprofit organization whose main mission is to teach computer skills to older people. Says Oscar Bober, a septuagenarian who teaches SeniorNet classes: "The opportunity to learn computers improves their emotional and mental health." SeniorNet is helping dispel a stereotype: that the world of bytes and electronic-mail addresses is beyond the reach of technophobic elders. While some older adults do enter computerdom with trepidation, growing numbers of seniors are embracing the machines with the passion exhibited by geeks a third their age. Some use software to keep tabs on their finances or trace their family roots. Others have turned to PCs so they can relate better to their computer-generation grandchildren. "I decided I was becoming a couch potato, watching TV all day," says George Woolfson, 70, of Lowell, Mich., who retired more than 20 years ago from his advertising job. Now, he says, "I just about spend my day playing around with the computer."

REMOTE SCRABBLE. Woolfson's favorite program is Print Artist from Maxis, which lets him create greeting cards, banners, and menus, some of which he sells to local restaurants for a modest profit. James Barrow, 85, of Clayton, Mo., took up the computer to play Scrabble over a modem.

Hudson Guild is typical of SeniorNet's 59 learning centers across the country. The lab contains five PS/1 PCs running 386 microprocessors donated by IBM, plus a pair of Tandy 286s. Members (all 55 or older) pay a $25 annual fee; those enrolled in the American Express Senior Membership program (800 282-1700) get a 50% discount. SeniorNet claims 13,300 members, with nearly 60% stating that they joined to keep their minds active. A six-week introductory course costs $15, as do other classes--in database design, spreadsheet usage, and word processing.

Computer classes are also offered at many colleges, but seniors often feel intimidated sitting with 18-year-olds. Silver Fox Computer Club (800 456-3574) in Louisville, Ky., and cities in three other states specializes in classes for adults over 50. The $200 fee covers a dozen four-hour classes, including separate E-mail and Internet courses.

Many retirees are already hanging around the virtual corridors of cyberspace. Seniors who have been widowed or become less mobile are bonding with on-line friends all over the world. In the Retirement Living Forum on CompuServe, members can exchange messages in "The Town Square." Some recent subject headings: Where were you on Nov. 22, 1963?; World War II memoirs; and grumpy old men and ladies. They can also download files from the Social Security Administration, including a factsheet on how benefits are figured.

COCKTAIL CHATTER. SeniorNet Online, available through America Online ($9.95 per month), contains a variety of discussion groups, from gardening and genealogy to health and retirement. The Internet is the topic of choice in the Getting Into Computers section, where some 450 messages on the subject were recently posted. Every Wednesday evening, SeniorNet regulars can take part in an on-line "cocktail party," chatting live about current events. A weekly on-line diet group gathers Saturday mornings.

SeniorNet President Mary Furlong envisions older people serving as guides to the Information Superhighway, teaching people in schools and libraries. "Seniors have the time, talent, patience, and interest," she says. SeniorNet members near Puget Sound in Washington are becoming Internet pen pals for kids at a local elementary school. As pupils learn about World War II, for example, their older on-line buddies regale them with firsthand experiences about D-Day and rationing.

People who think they're too old to learn computers may reconsider after reading a message posted by one SeniorNet member. The writer pointed out that Grandma Moses began to paint at 78, Winston Churchill took on the Nazis in his mid-60s, and Benjamin Franklin served as mediator at the U.S. constitutional convention in his early 80s. With that perspective, those collecting Social Security checks might not see the computer as much of a challenge after all.


Offers computer classes and SeniorNet Online, separately through the America Online network (800 827-6364).

COMPUSERVE (800 848-8199)

Its Retirement Living Forum includes on-line discussions about Social Security and health.

PRODIGY (800 776-3449)

Its Seniors Bulletin Board lists topics on coping, retirement, and travel.


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