Internet Age knows no age boundaries

Access: Seniors enter the online world with one of their own -- at the library.

April 05, 1999|By Athena Forrest | Athena Forrest,Sun Staff

Looking for the perfect gift for an older relative?

Try a computer.

That's what William Miller's sons gave him for his 90th birthday in January. Now Miller is a volunteer at the Pikesville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, where he spends 10 hours a week teaching younger folks -- in their 60s, 70s and 80s -- how to use the Internet.

"I'm curious -- I keep on pushing buttons," said Miller, who retired from a career as a civil engineer in 1969, years before personal computers were invented.

Miller is not the only one who has discovered technology late in life. More than 13 million people over the age of 50 in the United States use the Internet, representing one of six people online, according to a survey by Charles Schwab Inc. and SeniorNet, a San Francisco organization that helps older adults with computers.

Deborah Wheeler, manager of the Pikesville library, said Miller's introduction to computing is typical of many senior citizens who go online.

"Someone had given them a computer and they were determined to learn how to use it," she said. Once they've figured it out, she added, "they have as many uses for it as anyone else," including searching for health and travel information, conducting financial matters and communicating with government officials.

Miller and a longtime friend, Abe Fish, e-mail each other nightly, sharing ideas and favorite Web sites. Their list includes www.ascticket.com, where they can see the view from any seat of the Orioles' and Ravens' stadiums, and www.hotsheet.com, which makes dozens of sites available by category. They also like gardening sites and online TV magazines.

Many seniors use e-mail to keep in touch with relatives. Joe Lerner, 84, a friend and student of Miller's, uses the Internet to write to his son in South Africa. Miller sent e-mail to a granddaughter during her honeymoon in Australia.

As they look to go online, seniors increasingly turn to the library for help. Darcy Cahill, assistant manager of the Pikesville branch, said a class she helps teach, "Internet -- It's Easier Than You Think," fills up almost as soon as registration opens.

"I just wanted to see what it was all about," said one of her students, 70-year-old Sallye Esterson, a Realtor with O'Conor Piper & Flynn who uses a computer at work but had never been online. "I wasn't worried about [using the Internet]. I just didn't know how to access it."

Esterson said it doesn't surprise her that more older adults are using the Net. "Gray power has really become a force, in politics and everything else," she said. "Seniors should be able to do everything juniors can do."

Another student, Alfred Meyers, 79, is a beginning computer user who concluded some technical savvy "is necessary for these times." The Net helps him find information he needs. "It's almost like having the library on hand," he said.

Miller said that anyone who wants to use the Internet, including older adults, should be curious. "You have to ask questions. Don't be too proud to admit you don't know," he said.

He noted that computers present problems for older users, some of whom have trouble typing or using a mouse. Others have problems with short-term memory, which he said can often be solved through repetition.

"If you use your head, you'll return a lot of the ability to remember things," he said.

While Miller recommends having a computer at home to learn on, he said having one isn't necessary to use e-mail: The county library's computers provide access to Web-based mail servers. In fact, those services are available from any PC with a Web connection.

"You can go anywhere," Miller said.

Schedules for Internet classes at the Baltimore County Public Library are available at each branch. General library information is available at www.bcpl.lib.md.us.

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