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Jewish World Review Nov. 16, 2001 / 1Kislev, 5762

Larry Atkins

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Consumer Reports

From computer meek
to geezer geek -- MY MOTHER has become one of the "Geezer Geeks." Computer geek, that is. She uses her computer to e-mail friends in Florida, to research travel spots, get restaurant menus and information on cosmetic and beauty products.

My mother (I'm sworn to "Survivor"-type secrecy about her age) is not alone, but there should be many more older people who use computers. For a large number of these people, computers can serve as a vital link to the outside world.

Seniors are the fastest-growing group of Internet users in America, according to International Data Corp., a worldwide research firm.

More than 12 million seniors are online, a 106-percent increase from 1999.

But only 1 in 8 Americans age 65 and older uses the Internet, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet Project.

Last year, a Department of Commerce study showed that 67 percent of Americans over 65 have never used a computer, as reported in the Record, northern New Jersey. While 75 percent of people between 18 and 29 have Internet access, only 15 percent of people over 75 have such access.

Jupiter Communications, a New York tech firm, predicts that while 17 million Americans over 50 will be surfing the Web by 2005, 36 million will not.

Too many seniors, such as my 79-year-old father, are the "Computer Meek."

When I asked my father if his assisted-living facility would ever consider bringing in computers for residents, he laughed and said, "That idea wouldn't go over too well there -- most of the residents are half asleep all day."

Like most elderly people, his philosophy is, "What do I need a computer for? If I want to talk to somebody, I'll pick up a phone."

Despite the skepticism of many of their peers, a growing number of senior citizens are learning how to use computers.

SeniorNet, a nonprofit organization, is the world's largest teacher of computer skills for people 50 and older, with more than 200 learning centers in 38 states. The average age of SeniorNet's 39,000 members is 69.

"Generations on Line" is a nonprofit group in Philadelphia whose goal is to introduce seniors to the Internet. MyGait, a Houston company, installs computers modified for seniors in retirement homes and sells computer services to retirement homes.

One of the barriers to computer use by the elderly is their fear of new and complicated technology. In response, tech companies have introduced devices, such as Web-TV and I-Opener, which let users send e-mail and surf the Web without having to master the complexity of computers.

Agespan, an Atlanta company dedicated to helping seniors with new technology, recently unveiled "Ginger," a new user-friendly touch-screen and voice-operated personal computer for seniors.

Computer-wired homes could help senior citizens remain independent by giving them Internet access to buy books, order groceries, obtain health information and get their prescriptions filled.

Already, there are Web sites dedicated to senior issues and opinions, care- giving resources, legal issues such as probate matters, senior magazines, travel, retirement financial planning, health and diseases, nutrition and government agencies of interest to seniors.

It's ironic that the most frequent users of computers are young people, who should be outside playing sports, traveling, hiking, and going to nightclubs, concerts and dances.

Meanwhile, elderly people, particularly those who can't drive at night, are physically infirm or disabled, would benefit the most from using computers as a lifeline to the outside world.

It's a tough sell to convert people like my father from a Computer Meek to a Geezer Geek. But who knows? If technology companies can weave a less-tangled Web, maybe I'll be able to send him a virtual card online for his 80th birthday.

JWR contributor Larry Atkins is a lawyer and writer who lives in Philadelphia. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Larry Atkins