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At the keyboard

Class helps seniors find way around computer

Class helps seniors find way around computer

September 27, 2007|By MARIE GILBERT

Jeanne Stewart's computer recently caught a virus. Several years ago, she joked, she would have called a doctor.

"I didn't know what a mouse was, how you surfed the Internet or what you did with a CD-ROM," the Hagerstown woman said. "But today, I'm a computer geek - and proud of it."

While the information highway has left many older Americans by the roadside, Stewart said she didn't want to be one of them.

"I had always been curious about computers, but also afraid to give it a try," she admitted.

One day, the 60-year-old woman remembered something her mother told her when she was a little girl - "Never stop learning. New discoveries make life fun."

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"I decided right then and there to sign up for a computer class," she said.

Three years later, Stewart said, she scolds herself for wasting so much time fretting.

"It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. And it has opened so many doors for me. I shop, make appointments and stay in touch with family and friends on a daily basis, all thanks to my computer," she said. "I even know where to turn for help if it gets a virus - and it's not a doctor."

Stewart is among a growing number of senior citizens who have become computer savvy.

But a digital divide still exists between younger and older users. Americans 60 and older are only half as likely to have ever used a computer as people younger than 60, according to a poll released in February from National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

A different world

The reason?

"Operating a computer is a different world for seniors. They're very apprehensive," said Carvel Wright. "But that apprehension goes away when they learn they won't break it."

Wright is familiar with the uneasiness many senior citizens have toward operating a computer. He's an instructor of noncredit computer classes specifically geared toward seniors at Hagerstown Community College.

"Most people walk into class afraid to even touch the keyboard," he said. "That's not uncommon. My job is to help them gain confidence."

At the age of 72, Wright said he has worked professionally with computers since 1956.

He has seen big changes over the years in information technology, changes that sometimes scare away the older user.

"Software, spread sheets - the older generation doesn't even know these terms," he said. "It can be a lot to take in."

But all they need is a little instruction, a little guidance, he said.

"People of my generation are often given computers by their children who set it up, tell them to have fun, then walk away. This is a reality. No help, nothing."

Wright said he has been teaching the senior classes offered by Hagerstown Community College for several years and believes the formula for success is simple.

"With the right training, anyone can learn to use the computer," he said.

The lack of computer experience can lead to technophobia. But Wright recommends his Computer Basics class as a way of conquering fears.

Conquering fears

"We don't even turn on the computer for hours," he said. "We spend a lot of time just going over the components. When we do turn the computer on, we work with the mouse and keyboard. If they've never had typing, which many haven't - especially the men - I tell them one or two fingers works fine and speed is not of the essence."

The class also deals with how to buy a personal computer, what it can do for you and introduces students to the Internet.

Wright also teaches a Windows XP class, designed to develop basic working knowledge of the newest version of Windows.

Classes are held at HCC's Valley Mall Training Center.

Once a person begins to understand how to operate a computer, the second fear is how to deal with any problems that might arise, Wright said.

There are many places that offer support. Some are free, others charge a fee.

"In my class, I give them my phone number and tell them to call me if something happens they can't solve," he said. "If you bought your computer on the Internet, the manufacturer usually has guarantees that come with it. Be sure to get the in-home service guarantee."

Help also is available at small computer businesses, "the mom and pop stores that don't oversell and are there to really help people," he said.

Another good source is HCC's Computer Club. Wright said the club will host a CPR class for computers on Saturday, Nov. 10, beginning at 9 a.m. at Valley Mall in Hagerstown.

It's a great opportunity to have your questions answered, he said. People also may bring their computer systems, but should call the club ahead of time at 301-790-2800, ext. 599.

A useful tool

Since he began teaching the classes, Wright said, the interest in computers among seniors continues to grow.

"I have a limit of 14 students in a class," he said, "and, generally, those classes are always near full."

People take the classes for a variety of reasons, from learning how to send e-mails and pictures to shopping on the Internet.

"Computers can make a senior's life a lot easier," he said, "and I try to emphasize that. You can order almost anything you need from the Internet, do on-line banking and make appointments with your doctor. For the person who doesn't have transportation or is housebound, it's takes away a lot of pressure."

Wright said he always has his students do an evaluation at the end of every course and the response is usually very positive.

"Many were apprehensive when they first started, but they usually surprise themselves at how far they've come," he said. "They've gained that confidence and when it's all over they usually want to take more classes."

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