A Surfing Safari For Seniors

They sat shoulder-to-shoulder and knee-to-cane on folding chairs crammed into a San Jose hotel room. The mood was friendly but intense. "Welcome to San Jose," said a cheery Phyllis Shedroff. Her audience was about 40 senior citizens gathered for the opening session of From Prunes to PowerBooks, a program designed to introduce seniors to the Internet and Silicon Valley. "I guess we should have had Roberta Flack here singing that song to you."

"Dionne Warwick," a man barked from the back. "It was Dionne Warwick who sang [Do You Know the Way to San Jose]." Several other people nodded vigorously. Someone cracked: "Senior moment." Another man raised his hand: "Is it too early in the program to ask what silicon is?"

Tough crowd. Average age: seventysomething. They had come from around the country to merge onto the Information Highway, and they were in no mood to sit and schmooze on the on-ramp. For the next five days, they would get a crash course on the computer biz--its history, what makes it tick, and how they could Web surf smarter, faster, better. "I have friends who don't want anything to do with computers," says 63-year-old Jerry Roslund of Bend, Ore. "Well, they're just going to be left behind."

About eight times a year for the past four years, organizers Shedroff and Pat Tappan have been introducing seniors to Silicon Valley through Boston-based Elderhostel, an international organization that offers those 55 and up inexpensive lodging and courses on everything from kayaking to forensic science. Shedroff and Tappan, who also teach elementary school, hire local computer experts and history buffs for the lectures and training sessions. This course's title is no poke at the audience but rather a reference to the history of this region, once best known for iTs abundant orchards. "The first thing to realize," says Tappan to her audience, "is that Silicon Valley is not a place. It's a concept."

CAST-OFFS. That they fill these sessions every six weeks or so is a tribute to two realities. One is the world's continuing fixation on Silicon Valley as the wellspring of digital culture. The other is that seniors nationwide are clamoring to get wired. "I can't wait to get my hands on a keyboard," says 77-year-old Marie Christen of Sacramento.

Hostelers offered me several explanations foR why they were here. Several inherited their kids' cast-off computers and want to figure out how to use them. Many want to track stocks. Past attendees came to understand what their children, who work in the Valley, do for a living. Whatever the reason, upwards of 20% of senior citizens now own PCs, and an estimated 9 million adults over 50 go online. Seniors are among the most avid users of online trading and financial-service Web sites. And they're an increasingly important target for marketers from E*Trade to Procter & Gamble.

It's clear that E-mail is the killer app, however. Personal connections made possible and maintained online are helping seniors get over their wariness of computers. Marguerite Meek of Hemlock, Mich., now has a large database of jokes that friends have zapped to her. She keeps them so she can send cheery postcards daily to ailing chums. "I have to tell you, the hardest thing in the world is to find a new clean joke every day that fits on a postcard," she says.

Marguerite discovered the value of online correspondence several years ago, when she was the one who needed cheer. After her 39-year-old daughter died, she happened to tell one of her daughter's childhood friends that she had an E-mail address. Before long, he and other friends were sending Marguerite fond accounts of their teenage adventures, creating an E-memorial Marguerite treasures. "E-mail is my pet," she says.

The Web was a different story for Marguerite and a number of others. Day Three of the week's events involved a full day of training on surfing the Internet--a rite of passage that seems to intimidate and infuriate even those seniors who use E-mail daily. "Learning a whole new communication system creates a lot of stress," says my new octogenarian friend Frank, who preferred not to give his last name. Adds Marguerite: "I'm worried I'll click the wrong button and get a bill for $20."

Watching this feisty gang for a few hours, I began to appreciate how bewildering the Web can seem for first-timers. When a page reloads or they click to a new link, for example, many fret that they've deleted what they were just viewing. Jokes about the "world wide wait" fail to amuse them as they watch the Netscape meteor shower and can't always recall where they just clicked. So they click again. And again. That touches off a confusing array of flashing screens and beeps. Another frustration: On a Web page with lots of fine print, seniors are easily hijacked by an ad's simple order to "click here." Repeatedly, I'd hear: "Now where am I?" as a genealogy page morphed into an ad for a Ford Explorer.

WEB ACES. Tappan acknowledges that patience among these folks often is stretched. They want to learn everything at once. Some come armed with a single, sometimes unrealistic goal. For example, a woman with three daughters who talk every morning in a Net chat room had hoped on training day to bust into their digital klatch with a big hello. Unfortunately, the instructor was just getting to what the "back" button on a Web browser means when the chat ended.

On the other hand, Web aces such as Gertrude Mokotoff, 80, spends two to three hours a day on the Net, sending E-mail, tracking stocks, and researching trips. Her pet peeve: resorts that don't have all the details about rooms online. "I don't want to have to call the darned 800 number," she says. Gert, a former mayor of Middletown, N.Y., mainly attended the hostel program to "see" Silicon Valley. She was somewhat disappointed to find out that the Valley is a collection of off-limits corporations--rather than a specific destination. "I think it's a figment of somebody's imagination," she says, sighing. A Mac lover, Gert and her 84-year-old husband have even got their own Mac-vs.-PC feud roaring: "I sent him to the other training room," which was equipped with PCs. "I'm not putting a 57-year marriage at risk."

Of all the seniors here eager to go on the Net, few could match Jerry and Georgia Roslund's motivation: Their newest grandson had been born two weeks earlier, after they'd already left Oregon on this vacation. So they had their son ship a photograph to the training room over E-mail. As other seniors huddled round, Georgia squeaked a single syllable of unadulterated joy when she got her first look at the dimpled, digitized face of Cooper, her new grandson.

Seniors have many resources beyond Elderhostel to help them go online. The SeniorNet organization now has learning centers nationwide to help with computing. It also boasts a Web site for continuing support.

As more seniors go online, the market is fragmenting. That's because the interests of a retired 50-year-old Luddite triathlete are different from those of an 80-year-old Civil War buff in a wheelchair. Even the hostel factions got a little hostile at times: "This was supposed to be for beginners, but half the people were way beyond that. Their questions pissed a lot of us off," says James Edmiston, 66. San Francisco's Third Age Media Inc. runs what it calls a "Web site for grownups," targeting adults in the 45- to 64-year-old range. The two most popular areas: romance and tech support. "The hope is [the Internet] could be the new fountain of youth," says Third Age founder Mary Furlong, who notes that the vanguard of 76 million baby boomers turned 50 just three years ago.

Wired world look out: This generation of seniors is better educated and more tech-savvy than its predecessors. You better believe they know the way to San Jose.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.