People older than 50 are overcoming their fears of computers, finding,
among other things that they allow them to stay in touch with distant family members.
Many swore they would never touch one. Others
were frightened by them. Some went out of their way to avoid them.
But after they came around, many seniors say
they couldn't live without their computers.
The numbers of grandmas and grandpas on the
Internet is growing.
People older than 50 are the
second-fastest-growing group on the Internet, trailing only 16- to 24-year-olds, according
to a study last year by Nielsen Media Research and CommerceNet.
But the 50-and-older crowd accounts for only 17
percent of the people who use the Internet, the study found. And only 25 percent of people
older than 60 own a computer, compared with 50 percent for the rest of the population,
according to research by Microsoft and the American Society on Aging.
From the looks of it, those numbers will
While computer classes used to be the domain of
the young, many local classrooms are filling with seniors. Local PR maven Gladys Sarlat
recently took a class in which she, at 75, was one of the youngest in the room.
The classes are so popular, some have waiting
lists extending well into next year.
Ed Maxwell, computer instructor and retired IBM
systems analyst, guesses that more than 90 percent of the students in his non-credit
computer class at Pima Community College are older than 60. And in his PCC credit classes,
about 20 percent are seniors.
"I'm getting more and more seniors,"
said Maxwell, who has been teaching at PCC since '89. "I don't ask their ages, but
I'd say the majority are over 60 and only one would be under 50. It used to be that the
majority were middle age or younger."
Maxwell also volunteers his computer expertise
at a handful of non-profit organizations including the Shalom House and CALC, a
national organization, which promotes computer use by seniors. CALC classes here are
at Armory Park Senior Center at 220 S. Fifth Ave., and at Udall Park, 7200 E. Tanque Verde
Demand for those classes has outstripped the
supply of volunteer teachers, who are primarily IBM retirees.
Why do those older than 50 flock to classes and
to computer stores to buy computers?
Andy Bartholomew, another volunteer at
CALC, said the majority of seniors in his Tuesday morning classes feel pressure from
children and grandchildren to go online for e-mail. Some have received a computer as a
gift - even though they may not have had the slightest idea of how to turn one on. Others
are just plain curious. Some still do it out of necessity.
Most start with one thing in common,
Andy said: fear.
"They are petrified and don't even want to
turn it on," he said. "Many try and overcome it. It's funny though, it's the men
who pretend they aren't scared of it. The women admit it."
Don and Therese Hurley recently started taking
the class at the Armory Senior Center. This comes after years of prompting from their
"Our kids kept on wanting to get us one
for Christmas," said Therese Hurley, 69. She realized that without one she was living
in what her children considered the Stone Age. "I finally said yes after my son
Michael (who lives in Boise, Idaho) said, 'Fine mom, I'll send you a stone slab and
chisel, instead.' "
They got the computer - but not without some
"I was afraid to press any buttons at
first," said Don Hurley, 73. "But after the first couple of lessons, it's much
easier and not as scary. It's really so much fun."
Dorothea Degen, 76, also is having fun
negotiating cyberspace. Instead of feeling isolated, Degen, who can spend up to four hours
a night on the computer, is connected to the world.
"It's wonderful, there's so much
information out there and good entertainment. It really keeps your brain going," said
Degen, who now e-mails her friends across the country, including her two young great
god-children in Hampshire, Ill. "I send people funny cards with music."
Degen also scans photographs and sends them to
her loved ones.
Pat Hardel, 68, learned to use a computer to
stay connected with her scattered family.
"I e-mail my sister in Boston once a day
and my daughter, who is an RN, will be a traveling nurse," said Hardel, who calls
herself an "e-mail nut."
"It's super to be able to be connected to
the entire world."
Sue Southern, 75, has what she calls a
"love-hate relationship" with her computer.
"I love it, but sometime when it freezes
or it says I have a fatal error, I'd shoot the screen if I had a gun," said Southern,
who sits at her computer every morning as part of her morning ritual. "But if it
broke, I don't know what I'd do. I guess I'd read more."
Since she got the computer, though, it's been a
lot easier for one of Southern's sons, Cary Southern, who lives in Florida, to buy her
"Before he used to send me china and other
things and that was fine," said Southern. "Now I get a fax modem, new hard drive
and computer programs. Something I really need."
For Gladys Sarlat, learning how to use a computer
became a necessity.
"I was sitting around the kitchen at
LP&G (a local advertising, marketing and public relations firm) and the younger crowd
were talking about computers and for 15 minutes I had no idea what they were talking
about," she said.
Gladys Sarlat recently completed a class at PCC.
"Now, at least, I have a good idea what they are talking about, like e-mail."
The growth in seniors using computers is also
something computer officials are keeping their eyes on.
Intel, the world's largest chipmaker has
donated equipment for some computer training centers and has sponsored Web sites that
cater to the elderly.
America Online, the nation's largest Internet
provider, has boosted its content directed at seniors, forming partnerships with groups
such as the American Association of Retired Persons.
IBM offers computer discounts to members of
CALC and has donated computers in cities across the country, including Tucson.
Online auctioneer eBay has run print ads aimed
at older customers and computer maker Gateway has also sponsored training seminars and run
And Microsoft, the Redmond, Wash., software
giant, announced this month that it's shipping 10,000 free videos to community groups to
introduce seniors to computers. Microsoft also issued guidelines for businesses and Web
site developers on how to make Internet sites more user friendly and accessible for
But sometimes, even more needs to be done.
Andy Bartholomew said, while many seniors are
motivated, some have a hard time using the equipment because of Parkinson's disease or
"Sometimes it's hard for them to see the
screen or to click on the mouse," Andy said. "But we'll keep trying. We
will try the ball type of mouse and hope that's better."