Computer-savvy seniors find their worlds expanding

January 04, 1994|By Jane Glenn Haas | Jane Glenn Haas,Orange County Register

Early this year, John Roberts will cruise to Ensenada, Mexico, with 40 or 50 of his best buddies -- folks whose faces he has seen only by scanning their photographs on his computer.

All are seniors and all "talk" to each other on computer bulletin boards reserved for online users older than 55.

But few chat with the fervor of Mr. Roberts, a Mission Viejo, Calif., widower who spends at least six hours a day logged on to one of three national bulletin boards to which he subscribes.

Computer-savvy seniors use computers to keep in touch with grandchildren, prepare church bulletins, record family genealogies. Some even do such mundane tasks as budgets and Christmas letters.

"Gray hair doesn't change the way we use computers. We use them just like everyone else does -- to make our lives easier," says Anne Pearson, coordinator of computer classes for the Continuing Learning Experience program at California State University, Fullerton, Ruby Gerontology Center.

From a bedroom turned into an office in his Fullerton condominium, Dr. Francis (Bob) Mackey, 76, visits regularly by computer with his granddaughter, Melinda, 14.

Dr. Mackey writes letters to Melinda, posting them on a bulletin board in the Prodigy online service. Melinda answers using a Prodigy service membership her grandfather gave her for Christmas last year.

The ninth-grader, who lives in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, Wash., sends long messages to her grandfather.

"I can read the messages that she sends me on the bulletin board," Dr. Mackey says. "There's complete privacy and just enough anonymity with the computer to be comfortable for her, I think. And yet, at the same time, we can be very personal. Our communication is deeper than one-to-one conversation."

Computer-literate since before his retirement 10 years ago, Dr. Mackey decided to send his Macintosh computer to his grandchildren when he upgraded his personal equipment last year.

To his surprise -- and delight -- Melinda was eager to talk via modem and bulletin board.

He continues to try to spark interest in computers with Melinda's brother, Gregory, 12, who is just starting to learn computer language. "When we were visiting them over Thanksgiving, I showed Gregory how to use the spell-check to make sure the words he types are spelled correctly. That thrilled him just like it did me when I found spell-check. I'm a terrible speller."

Virginia White, 63, got involved with computers in self-defense.

"For a while, I was the only one in the family who didn't use computers," says the Fullerton resident, whose husband and two sons have been using computers for years.

Self-taught, Mrs. White became an addict, joining computer-user clubs and branching out into desk-top publishing. Now she plays games, does genealogy tables and sends E-mail messages to other members of the Continuing Learning Experience. She even teaches computer classes for CLE.

"I've made a lot of friends with computers," she said.

She's met many of them through America On Line's "Senior Net," a software program that lets seniors chat with each other via modem.

When she goes online, Mrs. White's moniker is Linger2.

"One of the guys I talk to a lot is 'Pony67,' " Mrs. White says.

She finally met Pony -- John Roberts from Mission Viejo -- in person at a San Fernando Valley party for Senior Net chatters.

Mr. Roberts, 80, has turned an entire bedroom in his home into a rTC computerized warren for some $35,000 worth of equipment.

Because of the discount rates for Senior Net users, Mr. Roberts pays less than $10 a month for all his chatting. He estimates there are 200 "regulars" online every day on Senior Net.

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