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  • Autumn Payne /

    Jean Davis, 86, checks Facebook on her home computer in Carmichael last week. She helps other seniors learn to use the Web in her spare time.

  • Autumn Payne /

    Jean Davis, 86, browses photos on Facebook on her home computer. She got her first computer 14 years ago. About 26 million seniors ignore the Internet.

Online world presents challenges, promise for older adults

Published: Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 - 11:52 am

Jean Davis is a wired senior. Now 86, she came to the digital world 14 years ago, well into her retirement years, when a son decided she should have a personal computer.

Now she not only surfs the Internet for several hours a day, checking out headlines and keeping up with the sprawling generations of her family on Facebook, but she also helps teach classes for SeniorNet, a nonprofit that trains older adults around the country in computer skills.

"We didn't even have television in the olden days," said Davis, who lives in Carmichael. "But now older people are getting on computers because their children and grandchildren want them online."

Older adults would do well to listen to their offspring, aging experts say: In the Internet age, seniors who are not computer literate – who lack the skills or resources to connect with the world around them via the Internet – are in real danger of being left behind.

"This 'Isn't that cute?' attitude toward seniors who are online was offensive from the start, and now it's outdated," said AARP California's communications director, Mark Beach.

"We're long past the threshold where it's novel for older people to be online. More and more, it's a necessity to stay connected in life."

Pew Internet & American Life Project figures show that slightly more than half of people age 65 and older use the Internet – and 43 percent of them regularly connect with family members and friends on social networking sites.

Those numbers drop significantly past age 75. Only a little more than one-third of people in that age group are digitally connected, according to Pew. Among the vast majority of older seniors who live without the Internet, almost 40 percent say they're simply not interested.

That's a source of concern for aging experts.

The 26 million older adults who remain offline, stuck in the digital wasteland, are not making the increasingly crucial transition to using technology as a lifestyle resource, said Tom Kamber, chief executive officer of Older Adults Technology Services, which teaches older New York residents to use the computer.

"As time passes, a smaller proportion of older adults is being left on the sidelines," he said. "Meanwhile, more and more core daily activities are online every year, from health to finances to basic communication with friends and family."

Tapping into online life is more than a matter of admiring the latest grandbaby photos or researching the family tree, satisfying as those activities may be.

The list of routine online activities continues growing: Banking. Paying bills. Receiving receipts and discounts from retailers. Making purchases. Tracking health expenses and ordering medications. Staying in touch with the doctor. Confirming appointments. Making travel arrangements.

And the push toward online life can seem relentless. Already, some airlines charge customers a fee to speak by phone to a reservations agent, for example, and some retailers only provide user manuals for appliances by email.

Devices can be daunting

Researchers hope that online connections also can help with one of the thorniest issues of old age: isolation and its resulting spiral of depression, mobility problems and chronic physical ailments.

It's a problem made more difficult by the fact that older adults in huge numbers prefer to remain living independently, in their own homes, even when doing so slowly becomes unhealthy for them.

Although Pew figures show that only 40 percent of people 65 and older have access to high-speed Internet at home, aging experts see technology as a major potential resource to help seniors continue aging in place.

Video conferencing via the Internet can connect them with medical providers and loved ones. Remote home health monitoring can track their blood pressure and record what – or whether – they've eaten.

More than that, older adults can reach out to others, even when they're alone.

"It's obvious that staying connected with loved ones and others really shapes your quality of life as you age," said AARP's Beach. "We're talking about online life.

"People approach it with different levels of interest and sophistication, but the ability to stay connected to the world is especially important to people who are not as mobile."

For older adults who are not online, the prospect of joining the digital world can seem both expensive and impossibly daunting, and the constant churn of new devices and technology can overwhelm them.

Jean Davis had never used a computer before she received one from her son 14 years ago. She barely knew how to turn it on.

"I set it up and kept calling the 12-year-old neighbor across the street to help," she said. "He'd come over and hit alt-control-delete and go home. I did not know a thing about computers."

So she took a computer basics class through SeniorNet, and one class led to another and another.

'Like discovering Oz'

Tim Bresnehan, a 70-year-old retiree who lives in east Sacramento, didn't even know how to type when he bought an iPad two years ago. After breaking a femur in a bad spill off his bike, he decided during his recuperation that it was time he enter the online age.

He needed a way to stay connected.

"I was very limited in my knowledge," he said. "I took a class at the Apple Store, and I had an iPad class at the Hart Senior Center."

About 80 older adults jammed into that class, said Hart's executive director, Rosanne Bernardy.

"I tried to incorporate what I learned as much as I could," said Bresnehan, who also enrolled in a Renaissance Society class on using the iPad and searched out online tutorials.

"Having been born during World War II, something like this is astonishing," he said. "The first television set I saw was in 1950. The rapid transition of a lot of these things is amazing."

Without age-appropriate instruction that takes into account their unfamiliarity with the terminology and technology, older adults can grow frustrated with the computer and embarrassed at feeling out of touch, said Kamber.

"We spend two weeks teaching people to learn the mouse and keyboard," he said. "If you take it slow, they're voracious once they're online.

"Every day we hear stories about someone who went online and discovered an old Army buddy. Once they've joined the Internet age, it's like they've discovered Oz."

Ron Meyer found Oz several decades ago: He was an early adopter. Now 73, he bought his first Apple, an Apple 2, in 1986, during the last years of his Air Force career.

"I'm pretty much self-taught," said Meyer, a Sacramento resident. "I was so frustrated with having Air Force clerks who couldn't type, and I was excited to get a computer with word processing that I could make corrections on."

After he left the military, he worked in nursing home administration, retiring in 2003. Through the years, he's owned a series of Apple products, and he's kept himself up to date.

He likes to say he's tied in to the universe through his online connections, but he's not tied into social media. He doesn't want to be.

"It's just one more doggone password to remember and one more thing to update," he said. "I have no interest."


Among the computer education resources for older adults in the Sacramento region:

SeniorNet is a national nonprofit that since 1986 has helped educate more than 1 million people aged 50 and older in technology training. In Sacramento, low-cost SeniorNet classes are offered at two locations:

• Hart Senior Center, 915 27th St. in midtown Sacramento. Call (916) 264-5462 for more information.

• The SeniorNet Northeast Learning Center, 4540 American River Drive, on the campus of Rio Americana High School. Call (916) 485-9572 for more information.

The Renaissance Society, Sacramento State's lifelong learning program, offers a slate of iPad and iPhone classes. Call (916) 278-7834 for more information.

Call The Bee's Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136. Follow her in Twitter @AnitaCreamer.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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