You may be able to live the rest of your life without learning to use a personal computer. But if you intend to be a part of the world around you, that is increasingly unlikely.
If you are middle-aged or have retired, the entire idea may be intimidating. There is no cause for alarm, though. Those who provide computer training say it's just as easy for you to master computer skills as it is for the youngsters. And it is important, if you intend to continue working or start a second career after you reach 65.
With the newest equipment and software, becoming computer literate is remarkably easy. Especially now, with the help of an organization called SeniorNet.
SeniorNet is a nationwide network of computer users 55 years old and older. It holds classes in computer use at 37 sites in 17 states (with more to come) and connects its members via computer, modem and telephone lines.
It was the idea of Mary Furlong, a professor of education at the University of San Francisco. She discovered that, contrary to prejudices that are held by many, including older Americans themselves, seniors are actually as good as their younger counterparts at learning their way around a computer keyboard.
"My field is education and technology," she says. "I was co-author of a book, 'Computers for Kids Over 60,' published in 1983. While researching that book, we found that older adults are among the best learners. They have more time to practice, to devote to learning. They bring more experience and knowledge with which to work."
SeniorNet became a reality in 1986. It has been growing ever since. Members include computer novices and leading engineers who have spent their lives on the cutting edge of technology.
SeniorNet is by no means a one-way street. It does seek to teach older Americans how to use many popular computers and programs -- but its purpose also is to let their voices be heard.
The most popular classes deal with word processing and financial management. Armed with that knowledge, many SeniorNet members do volunteer work, helping their church or community group publish its newsletter or balance its books. Others use their newly gained knowledge in a part-time job or even a small home business.
The group's 4,000 members also socialize via computer.
"They go on line and use their computers and modems to talk with each other," explains Furlong. "They do everything from exchanging recipes to discussing news events. So many of the media are one-way. This is an interactive, two-way community."
"They even have a cocktail party one night each week. They bring a glass of wine with them to the computer, log on and socialize."
This is important, she explains, for a group of individuals who may otherwise live lonely lives, perhaps following the loss of a spouse or because they are not as mobile as they once were. One of the great advantages of computers is that they let you communicate and do work -- even socialize -- from the comfort of your home.
SeniorNet has been well supported by corporations, which have provided grants to start up new learning centers, to equip centers with computers and software, even to publish a booklet on how to buy a computer.
Membership in SeniorNet costs $25, which entitles you to a copy of Mary Furlong's book, plus the organization's newsletter and other publications. An additional $15 brings you on-line privileges.
Obviously, SeniorNet is of greatest use to those who live near one of its teaching centers. But, because it is growing, it will be setting up new centers as time goes on. To learn more about this nonprofit organization, drop a note to SeniorNet, 399 Arguello Blvd., San Francisco, Calif. 94118.