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|August 28-September 3, 2008
More seniors finding the Internet too powerful to ignore
by Wailin Wong
Dr. Manus Kraff’s iMac and MacBook Pro are hooked up to a home wireless network. He recently replaced his old iPhone with the latest version and downloads podcasts of scientific lectures so he can listen to them while jogging. In his downtime at the office, he signs onto Google Reader to skim his favorite Web sites.
Kraff is 76 years old.
The way he has embraced technology is rare for his age group, which remains the last generation to go online in significant numbers. But in many ways Kraff is on the leading edge of seniors wading deeper into technology at a pivotal time.
Even for some older adults who have long resisted going online, the Internet is now too powerful to ignore. This year’s presidential election underscores the generational divide, pitting a 71-year-old who has admitted he rarely goes online by himself against a 46-year-old who hired a founder of Facebook to organize Web-based support.
Still, the overall ranks of Web-savvy seniors remain low. Just 35 percent of Americans over the age of 65 use the Internet, according to data compiled in April and May by the Pew Internet & American Life Center. But that’s up from 30 percent in November 2006. By comparison, 70 percent of people aged 50-64 use the Internet.
“Everyone knows that older adults are online,” said Nataki Clarke, director of online marketing at AARP. “That’s not the big news. The big news is that older Americans are using the Internet for new and pretty meaty tasks that they previously weren’t doing.”
Susan Good, who didn’t disclose her age, goes online at least five times a day to look up information on Google, e-mail friends and family, and read about politics. When traveling, she keeps track of her calendar on her iPhone.”Without knowing how to use a cell phone and use a computer, and knowing how to type, you were kind of like an old soul instead of a young soul in modern America,” Good said, explaining how she came to take private computer lessons from Tony Marengo, who calls himself The Mac Tutor.
Marengo tailors his instruction for adults who are 65 or older, visiting their homes for weekly or biweekly sessions that cost $75 an hour. He works with students such as Good and Kraff, as well as newcomers.
One client once put the mouse directly on the monitor, while another didn’t know she could access other Web sites besides Yahoo because that was her browser’s home page.
“There’s such a level of apprehension whenever you’re new to something,” Marengo said. “The key is not to get frustrated.”
When Kraff, the founder of the Kraff Eye Institute in Chicago, started taking classes in 2001, he thought, “Everybody else takes golf lessons and tennis lessons. I’m going to take computer lessons,” he said.
During a recent session, Marengo showed Kraff how he could view messages from multiple accounts at one time, rather than clicking on each mailbox individually in his e-mail software.
“I learned something,” said Kraff, tapping his forehead. “That’s the pearl today.”
With beginning students Marengo assigns simple homework, such as writing three e-mails or bookmarking four Web sites. And he always reminds his students that “there is no self-destruct button” on the computer, so they shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes.
There are lots of places where older adults can become computer literate. The Council for Jewish Elderly in Rogers Park offers free hourlong sessions every Monday and Thursday.
On a recent Monday, 66-year-old Beverly Atterberry came in to get instruction from Stanley Kim, a retired schoolteacher who volunteers at the center.
Kim started by opening an Internet Explorer browser window and reviewed the three buttons in the corner: close, expand, minimize. Then Kim showed her how to type the “at” symbol for e-mail addresses and enter a subject line. Finally, he taught her how to visit a website.
“I love it,” said Atterberry, who exchanges e-mails with her daughter and granddaughter in Rockford. “I used to type a long time ago, so it’s bringing back all those memories of the keyboard.”
Monica Glaser, manager of consumer assistance at the Council for Jewish Elderly, said she’s seen “quite a jump” in interest in the computer classes during the last year, and she is looking for more volunteer instructors. Glaser said residents often come in to use the center’s computers, which are available all week long, to access the Web.
Aleksey Gorelik, 79, a regular who reads Russian news sites and recently looked up online travel information before taking a trip to Canada, said, “I can see all the world on my computer. I e-mail with friends in Chicago. I send letters to Belarus and Moscow and Minsk, all over.”
Baby boomers who are well-versed in e-mail and Web surfing also are expanding their use of the Web, plugging into social outlets, for example. Jeff Taylor, founder of job site Monster.com, has a new boomer online community called Eons.com, with 750,000 registered members.
Eons members create personal profiles, upload personal photos and join interest groups, similar to Facebook and MySpace. But in contrast with those social networking sites where younger users connect with their existing friends, many Eons members are scouting for new friends, especially as they retire and lose contact with former co-workers.
“I asked my daughter, who is 17, ‘Do you ever meet anybody new on Facebook?’ And she said, ‘That’s disgusting,’” Taylor recalled her saying. “But for the boomer group, it’s all about meeting new people. It’s exactly the opposite.”
Some Eons groups organize in-person meet-ups, from local coffee outings to cruises. One of those groups, SKITS, stands for “Spending Kids’ Inheritance.”
At AARP’s Web site, page views are up 50 percent or more since last year, notably for online communities focused on Social Security and health-care issues. Reading habits also are changing.
In June, AARP released a study showing that 42 percent of users 50 and older venture online at least once a day to check the news, compared with 18 percent of users under 20.
AARP’s Clarke said many older adults also are eager to tap into senior-friendly technology, such as basic cell phones like the Jitterbug and Nintendo’s Wii gaming system.
And there’s always more to learn, including when to admit when something just isn’t working.
Back at Kraff’s home, his hard drive is refusing to back up the data from his computer.
“I’m ready to call this a failure,” Marengo said, and seizes on the opportunity to remind Kraff how to forcibly quit the program.
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