Senior citizens and computers? No way! The machines are too complicated, a little scary, a waste of time. And anyway, you can't teach an old ... (well, you know).
Only don't repeat that to Bertha Seal.
"It's almost magic," says the retired teacher in Bartow, Fla. She's been an avid user ever since her son persuaded her to get an Apple Macintosh.
"Too many people are intimidated by the word 'computer,' " adds Selwyn Stickler, a retired engineer in Vero Beach, Fla. "I find it a constant challenge in keeping me mentally alert."
So much for stereotypes. Although slower to accept the technology than younger generations, senior citizens are taking a new look at the personal computer. An estimated 1 in 5 Americans over age 50 uses one. According to one technology watcher, the fastest-growing populations of computer users are older adults and young children.
Why do seniors take up computing? It's a challenge, they say.
"My husband of 46 years has never learned not to challenge me," says one Waterloo, Iowa, enthusiast. "He said: 'Computers are for the young.' Next day I was enrolled in a beginners' computer class." Now, she has an IBM-compatible machine. "My children and grandchildren are thrilled," she adds. "I talk their language."
The computer does pose special challenges for senior citizens. They didn't work in computerized offices or factories as their children do. They didn't grow up with them in school as their grandchildren do. This absence of contact can make the technology look strange and forbidding. Even those who take the time to investigate personal computing often decide it isn't worth the effort.
After her daughter left for Africa on a research trip a few years ago, Wilda Shafer decided to check out the computer she left behind. She decided it would take too much time to learn. "I really felt I could live ... my life most comfortably through reading, travel, involvement with worthwhile organizations, and relaxing with friends," she says.
"I would never have a computer in my house," adds L. Roussel of New Orleans. "They take away your life. They excommunicate you from your wife, your family, your friends." Mr. Roussel should know. He worked with computers for 20 years before retiring.
Those who do take up computing in later years don't always have an easy time of it.
"I am not a doddering old woman!" protests Mary DeGraff of Sturgeon Bay, Wis. "I've run a business for years.... I just wish these wonderful machines were easier to figure out.... What little I've struggled through I love. But I am frustrated!"
This may explain why seniors are flocking to beginning computer classes at local schools and colleges. More than 65,000 older adults have attended sessions held by a budding national organization called SeniorNet. In the 10 years since its start in a church basement in San Francisco, the group has added nearly 19,000 members and established 78 centers around the United States (and one in New Zealand).
"Most of our classes have waiting lists - a mile long, sometimes," says Bradley Haas, a spokesman for SeniorNet. The classes are specially designed for older adults. The group expects to have 100 centers by the end of the year.
Once they learn how to use computer modems, SeniorNet members often meet on-line. The group maintains a service on America Online and the Microsoft Network, where senior citizens can read and respond to electronic mail left by other members. The group also publishes computer-related materials and conducts research on how older adults use technology. According to SeniorNet, the most popular computer applications for older adults are word-processing, home and personal finance, and telecommunications.
Other on-line services also have special areas for older adults. One of the intriguing aspects of on-line technology is how it might help overcome isolation for older Americans. A research team in Munich, Germany, is studying the phenomenon and expects to release its results early this year.
Unlike other parts of cyberspace, where conversation is often juvenile, these areas are usually moderate and thoughtful. One SeniorNet member posted a message late last month about how she had found a Lutheran minister through the Internet and sent him an electronic message. She found the minister's reply touching and posted his message on-line. Other SeniorNet members asked for his electronic address.
"Here is a man who is a Lutheran pastor, a longtime journalist, a barbershop quartet singer, writing and ministering to me through e-mail," she marveled in her electronic message. "If you want to say that I am hooked on the Internet and the use of e-mail, I guess you are right!"
Where seniors gather on-line:
America Online SeniorNet Online
CompuServe Retirement Living Forum
Delphi Senior Forum
Microsoft Network SeniorNet Online
Prodigy Seniors Bulletin Board
Where seniors can get computer help:
(Call to get information about learning centers around the country.)