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Seniors reach digital age

Benefits of getting online inspire some seniors to tackle their fears, frustrations
The Bulletin

The moment Judy Bennett decided she needed to learn how to use a computer clearly sticks in her mind. Someone played her an online video of her grandson juggling some balls. It was tangible evidence that she could be more connected to her family if only she had the technological means and know-how.

The 64-year-old Bend resident realized, “That's it! I'm missing out on things.”

She had always found computers a bit scary and intimidating. When her son went away to college in the mid-1980s, she bought him a computer, which came in a big suitcase-like box. It sat in the dining room for weeks. “Every time I'd walk by it, I'd get sick to my stomach,” said Bennett.

But she didn't let her fear deter her this time. Bennett took a few classes at the Bend Senior Center and eventually purchased her own machine.

She still feels a bit scared and intimidated by computers, but she finds the benefits overwhelmingly positive.

“Now I'm on Facebook. I can see my grandkids.”

She sends messages to her grandchildren and they share recipes, or she checks up on her grandson's wrestling team. Thanks to the computer, Bennett feels she is getting to know the youngsters better.

Many older individuals feel intimidated or scared by computers and technology. But many are also recognizing the potential benefits and are getting online.

“I was actually afraid of my computer,” said Mary Pitts, 70. “It intimidates us. It used to be a blackberry is a berry. A notebook is a piece of paper.”

Pitts, a Bend resident, now uses the computer regularly after taking classes at the senior center. People in Pitts' age demographic are experiencing a surge of Internet use. The percentage of people ages 70-75 using the Internet has jumped from 26 percent in 2005 to 45 percent in 2008, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Learning to use computers at a later age, however, is often very different from learning to use them as a child.


Jerry Schulz has been teaching computer classes at the senior center in Bend for about two years. Overwhelmingly, people take the classes because they want to connect with their grandchildren. “Most have computers; they're just not using them,” said Schulz.

In addition to connecting with family members, seniors also want to connect with old friends and to learn how to manage their photos. Often, Schulz says, older people have uploaded hundreds of photos to their computer, but they are not organized or labeled in any way. Learning more about genealogy and family history is another big draw. Skype is a great tool for many seniors, as it allows family members to talk and see each other at the same time. Shopping and downloading music are not as popular.

Once older individuals do get connected, they get excited. Schulz says in many ways, online connections have replaced telephones. And being online can help seniors feel in touch. “It almost becomes their neighborhood.”

He also believes seniors benefit from all of the brain activity required to use a computer.

“The benefits are just enormous,” said Marion Somers, a geriatric care manager in Los Angeles and author of “Elder Care Made Easier.” As people grow older, their social circles tend to shrink. Computers help people maintain and establish new connections.

“It almost eliminates isolation,” said Somers. Technology also helps seniors bond with the younger generation.

She says some older individuals will become reinvigorated through the computers and their ability to connect with people and hobbies from the past. “It brings them back to a time when they were younger, more vital.” For some people, their sense of purpose in life can increase.

Pitts agrees. “It's a way out. It's a way to socialize and talk to people.”


Resistance to learning to use a computer can be very strong.

“The older we get, the more we hate change,” said Schulz. He says many people get into a set routine as they age and don't want to change. As a 60-year-old himself, he understands that impulse.

What people don't realize is that learning to use a computer can open new chapters in their lives, says Schulz.

Many seniors also worry about the cost and frequently seem nervous about the possibility of breaking the machine. Somers says if seniors know their relatives spent, say, $1,000 on the computer, they feel as if they are “touching gold” and are terrified of breaking something. The money was definitely something Bennett considered. “It's not cheap.” But she's decided that it's worth it.

Pitts owned a computer for about eight years and knew how to do a few things, but not much. She found it intimidating and worried she might break it or lose what she put on the computer. She went to one class designed for all ages and found it too fast-paced.

Getting started

Schulz has tips for family members who want to convince an older relative to get a computer. Instead of showing them the machine and whizzing through all of the awesome Web sites and features it offers, Schulz suggests they take a slower approach. Instead, he says, slowly show them some family photos or whatever they might like best. “Try to show them a little bit of that, slowly.”

Just do one thing and then let it digest.

“To get interested in a computer, a person only needs one thing,” said Schulz.

Somers emphasizes the importance of the proper setting. Older individuals will need a lot of natural and ambient light. Relatives may want to increase the brightness of the screen and also increase the font size to make it easier to read. Some seniors who use bifocals may prefer to get a separate pair of glasses to make reading the computer screen easier. Somers also thinks people should invest in a decent chair, preferably one with arms to make it easier to get out of. She also thinks it's good to tell seniors that computers are not that fragile and they shouldn't worry so much about breaking them.

Schulz says many of his students don't give themselves any credit. “They all think they're dumb,” said Schulz. Often, he hears a family member has already tried to show them how to use the computer and it didn't go well. “They usually don't have the patience to deal with a 70-year-old mind.” Family members may see something as easy or intuitive but that isn't the case for older individuals.

On occasion, Schulz encounters a senior who simply cannot learn to use a computer; they've hit a learning wall and cannot progress. But those cases are rare.


In addition to the classes offered at the Bend Senior Center, individuals can also attend classes through a local library. The Deschutes Public Library system offers numerous beginning computer classes. Sandy Irwin, an assistant director with the library system, says the classes are popular with seniors as well as people re-entering the work force. There is a three-class series with a basic introduction to computers, the Internet and Gmail, Google's e-mail program.

Each library has its own schedule of classes, but Irwin says each branch typically hosts one set of classes each month or every other month. And all classes are free.

Schulz starts his classes by going over basic keyboard skills. There are numerous keys on a keyboard that don't appear on a typewriter: Backspace, Delete, Enter, Ctrl, Alt, and on and on. Another basic skill Schulz teaches is how the windows on the computer work, including how to move and re-size them. Security, viruses and spam are also important lessons. Schulz talks about how to recognize a valid link online, versus a risky link.

Many seniors just beginning to learn about computers will not know the proper terminology and may make up their own names for different things. Somers suggests the teacher embrace this terminology and then write it down so, over time, the senior may learn the proper name (for instance, one person called the keyboard the “alphabet block”).

Some seniors have trouble with trembling hands. This can make it difficult or nearly impossible to maneuver a computer mouse, according to Schulz. He estimates about a quarter of people taking the classes have trouble mousing. But Schulz shows them ways to get around the mouse, through using the arrow and enter keys.

Right clicking the mouse is another important tool to learn. Schulz says about 80 percent of class attendees don't know this idea before coming to class. But often it's a very useful tool because some seniors struggle with double clicking. They either pause too long between clicks or move the mouse slightly between clicks. Learning to right click can eliminate the need to double click in many instances.

Schulz suggests teachers be careful about overwhelming the students. “You don't want to have too much frustration build up.” Somers suggests relatives go over material not just once, but three, four, even five times.

Bennett appreciated the camaraderie she experienced in the computer classes she took. Everyone helped each other and it made the material seem less scary.

Pitts enjoyed the classes at the senior center. She learned new techniques, such as how to cut and paste and how to organize her photos. She says her grandkids think it's wonderful she's online now. “They get a big kick out of it.”

And she isn't looking back. “I'm sold on computers.”

Alandra Johnson can be reached at 541-617-7860 or at ajohnson@bendbulletin.com.

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