The New Generation Of Net Surfers: Seniors

No longer timid about technology, they're finding a world of fresh options

When Bonnie Hoskins's children suggested she get a computer, she was intrigued but a little wary. The idea of using e-mail to keep in touch with friends and loved ones was delightful. But the technology surrounding the computer was a little daunting.

Her three grown children were already e-mailing one another - from Chicago, Boston, and Germany. With their gentle prodding, Mrs. Hoskins, who lives in Florida, finally agreed. Her son hooked her up with a PC and software, and soon, she found herself with an America Online account.

Now, by following just a few simple steps, she gets online almost every morning and exchanges e-mail with her children and grandchildren. "My son is installing software for voice mail now," Hoskins says. "It comes electronically and translates into sound, so I can hear my granddaughter Heather's voice."

Hoskins is one of a rapidly growing number of adults discovering the Internet after middle age. From finding new friends and sharing a new hobby to getting the latest news and making travel reservations, early baby boomers and seniors are catching up to younger generations who consider surfing the Net second nature. These mature computer users are finding that cyberspace is changing their lifestyle - the way they communicate, find information, and spend their leisure time.

Catching up to younger generations

The 55-and-over age group is the fastest-growing demographic group for computer sales and Internet use, says Glen Gilbert, director of public relations for SeniorNet, based in San Francisco. Approximately 15 percent of them are regular Internet users, accounting for 8 million of the 50 million users.

Part of the growth, of course, has to do with the fact that the group is playing catch-up. Also, it is the fastest growing segment of the overall population.

Yet, mature adults are particularly poised to take advantage of the Internet, given their extra leisure time and interest in long-distance communication.

Timidity about learning the technology is disappearing. The number of overall e-mail accounts has risen to 93 million, up from 62 million a year ago. Meanwhile, WebTV and cable TV are seeking out an older market that wants to e-mail and plug into the Internet without having to buy a personal computer. "People of my generation have reservations about technology, but once you get started, it is so easy," says Hoskins.

Randy Bassin has seen enthusiasm like Hoskins's time and again. His company, HOMEPC, in Lowell, Mich., provides computer sales, service, and executive-style training to consumers in western Michigan. Some 30 percent of his business has been in the retiree category (typically between 65 and 75). "I am still observing an above-average growth in this group - including my own dad, finally," he says.

Mr. Bassin talks of several factors behind the trend. "Peer pressure within close social groups for the exchange of e-mail addresses has driven many to their first PC simply for Internet connection," he says. Some people who are caring for relatives and spouses have become house-bound, and they need diversions nearby.

Adult-school courses, science museums, and community centers have all seen increased enrollment in classes ranging from "Introduction to the Internet" to "How to Design Your Own Web Page."

SeniorNet, an Internet pioneer, runs learning centers nationwide offering peer-to-peer computer instruction to people 55 and older. Five years ago there were about 40 learning centers; today there are 110. By the end of this year there will be 22 more.

"There's a tremendous amount of interactive learning going on," reports Mr. Gilbert. Genealogy is a huge hobby, and many people watch the stock market. Book chats and cooking clubs are popular, as is information about reemployment after retirement, health, community activism, and grief support.

Norman Lino got talked into getting an online account by his daughter. Mr. Lino had worked with computers before, but this was his first jaunt into Web searches and e-mail. Now he "talks" to his daughter, sometimes several times a day via e-mail. "I use the Internet to track my stocks, get sports scores, and do other searches. Since I only have one phone line, I don't spend hours on the Net at one time. Last week I even sent an e-mail to a friend in Sweden - so much faster, cheaper, and fun."

For Louise Licht, travel was a draw. She first went on the Internet as an amateur archaeologist. "I traveled to Egypt via the Internet, and the Cairo Museum. From there I went to England, then France. I said to my husband, 'You'll never guess where I've been!' all on one rainy Saturday morning."

These days, Ms. Licht serves on the national board of SeniorNet, is a coordinator of learning centers, and has become an advocate of mature computer users.

"There is a myth that the over-40 and 50-plus generation really is afraid of technology, but they're the best students," she says. "They bring with them their wisdom, lifelong training, and will to learn." Some of her favorite Web sites to send new students are The White House (a virtual tour), Epicurious (a food site), and David Letterman.

You gain a tremendous virtual family, says Licht, of the Internet's appeal. "I have so many friends all over the country. You find people with the same hobbies and interests." She was able to locate a long-lost friend she hadn't talked with in more than 30 years. Her husband, for example, enjoys classical-music chats.

Gloria Hasselbacher, of Connecticut, has been going online for about five years. "There's a real explosion in our age bracket. At a time of life when people's options are limited, mine are expanded," says the grandmother of seven. She praises the Web's ability to connect and reunite people.

One of Ms. Hasselbacher's hobbies is the Greeting Card Exchange, where people design greeting cards and send them to one another through "snail mail" - the kind the postman delivers. She also enjoys scanning photos and sending them to family members as photo albums. Computer toys, like scanners, don't come cheap, she says, adding that she's fortunate that her husband is supportive of her techno-hobby.

At this writing, Hasselbacher was helping her daughter's family move in Pennsylvania. With her laptop computer along, she was able ease the transition for her 15-year-old granddaughter, Sarah. "She has been missing her friends terribly," says Hasselbacher. But having the laptop at the hotel has been a plus, because Sarah's friends have been e-mailing her through her grandmother.

Dealing with technology frustration

The Net can have its downsides for mature users as well. Technology frustration comes in at No. 1. Careful handholding is part of good training. But, "as the clock ticks, so does the technological clock," says HOMEPC's Bassin. "Most users will never know what or when upgrades must occur." This is all the more reason someone must serve as their "techno-advocate," he says.

Some have voiced concern about physical isolation. "It's worth keeping an eye on," says SeniorNet's Gilbert. "On the other hand, shut-ins find it's a wonderful opportunity to break down isolation."

Hasselbacher notes that one of the downsides is the way people feel they can behave with anonymity - insulting and aggressive. While that might not be the norm, she suggests that people tend to behave on the information highway the same way they behave on real highways.

Reports that people are spending too much time on the Internet are exaggerated, says SeniorNet's Licht. "I am constantly learning - it's an unending learning experience, and that's what life should be."

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