Senior citizens jump online

August 04, 2000

Senior citizens jump online


Joan Hurtt's question stunned even her teacher.

"How do I get into a chat room?" Hurtt asked Carville Wright, her computer teacher at Hagerstown Community College.

The blank expression on Wright's face was his answer. He'd never gone into a chat room. Neither had the other students in the class.

Wright tried to help Hurtt, navigating to an America Online chat room, only to find the community college computer lacked the software needed to chat in cyberspace.

Unlike many online chatters, Hurtt wasn't interested in chatting about adolescent angst, sports or the latest celebrity gossip. At 62, she wanted up-to-date health care information, and she didn't want to make an electronic faux pas in the world of cybertalk.


For Hurtt and many in her class, not making a mistake is an overriding concern.

The students - all of them senior citizens - are "intimidated by technology," Wright, 65, said.

"They start by thinking that if you hit a wrong key it's a disaster," he said. "I tell them it's not a disaster; they can't break the machine by sitting there and pushing buttons. Once they realize that, they start relaxing."

Computer literacy - at least being able to e-mail friends and surf the Internet - has become a necessity for many seniors. More and more are as likely to reach out and touch via e-mail as they are to make a phone call or write a letter.

Being electronically connected is becoming essential.

As Hurtt's classmate Shelby Gaver, 58, of Boonsboro, said, "If we don't get on (the Internet), we lose out."

Getting online

In 1987, just 1 percent of those age 65 or older used a computer, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey. By 1997, the number rose to 10 percent. AgeLight Institute, a computer industry consulting firm, estimates 23 percent - or 8 million seniors - now own computers.

Senior women are the fastest growing segment of Internet users, according to a recent report from Media Metric, a Web rating firm. A recent Seniornet survey estimates seniors spend an average of 16.2 hours a week on the Internet.

The Internet is "a way for seniors to have more contact with their community, people that matter to them," said Lee Rainie, director for the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The Pew project is looking at the social impact of the Internet.

However, Minorities, low-income persons and "seniors" were the most likely populations to be on the disconnected side of the digital divide, according to a U.S. Commerce Department 1998 study.

The most likely connected people were those with high incomes, high education and the white middle class.

Connectivity in the Tri-State region is difficult to measure. In Jefferson County, W.Va., Anna Marie Reedy, director of the county Council On Aging, said no one has called her office seeking computer or Internet access.

"We even sold the one computer we had to get it out of the way," Reedy said.

Nonetheless, plans to expand the senior center include room for computers.

In adjacent Berkeley County, more than 170 seniors have received basic computer training at the senior center in Martinsburg. The training is part of Gov. Cecil H. Underwood's Senior Technology Program to bridge the digital divide.

Berkeley County was one of four test sites that received 10 computers from Microsoft and computer training from the staff at Marshall University.

In Washington County and in Franklin County, Pa., seniors are on waiting lists for computer classes.

According to the 1990 census, people older than 55 make up between 19 percent and 25 percent of the population in various counties. As baby boomers age, the Census Bureau nationally projects the over 65-age population will double between 2000 and 2025.

That expected growth is a reason Hagerstown Community College has become a leader in senior citizen education, said Ann Shipway, the college's director of continuing education. In two years, HCC has taught almost 1,300 seniors a variety of computer skills.

Classroom training

At HCC older adults have the option of taking classes in the community college curriculum or enrolling in the Institute for Learning in Retirement.

Many opt for the institute, where course are taught by - and paced for - seniors.

The classes are paced slow because most senior students find computers intimidating, instructor Wright said.

"I've heard all the horror stories firsthand, including the person who used the CD (compact disc) tray as a coffee cup holder," Wright said.

Retired from full-time teaching, Wright now leads seniors into the electronic age, teaching everything from word-processing basics to using the Internet and using photo scanners.

Most of his students range in age from 55 to 75. The oldest was 93.

Classes are limited to 14 students. Usually half of them don't own a computer before starting classes, Wright estimated. By the end of the course, the number of computer have-nots is usually halved, he said.

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