Never Too Old To Go On Line

When JoAnn Oakes's husband died, six years ago, she found that evenings were the loneliest time. That was before she put an IBM-compatible next to her bed and joined SeniorNet, a national compter network for people 55 and over. Now when Oakes wakes up at 1:30 a.m., she can log on and engage in lively electronic discussions on everything from health problems to abortion, grandparenting to Ross Perot. She's made fast friends and rekindled her love life over the computer line. "Many of us feel left out of the world, " says the 63-year-old resident of Bainbridge Island, Wash. "The computer fills a social need-it's a major part of my life."

Forget that myth about older people being technology-phobic. Growing numbers of senior citizens are logging on and discovering that computers provide an ideal means to stay active and informed, even if their physical abilities can't keep up with their inquiring minds. To date, more than 15,000 people have joined SeniorNet, a six-year-old San Franscico-based organization. For $25 a year, members get free software and discounts on equipment, and can learn basic computer skills at any of 42 SeniorNet learning centers nationwide. There or at home, they can also tap into SeniorNet's on-line service; just $9.95 a month buys unlimited access during evenings and on weekends. Members can download databases or visit any of 30 or more "forums," exchanging comments on topics from arthritis to gardening, caregiving to tie-dyeing. Some members trade bawdy limericks; others are group-writing a novel. There are also nightly "cocktail" parties for group chatter and jokes. "It's an on-line 'Cheers' for older adults," says SeniorNet president Mary Furlong, who started the nonprofit group as a research project for the University of San Francisco. "But in this world, you don't know who has gray hair. You only know if they are funny, supportive or have a strong intellect."

Beyond companionship, computers are enabling seniors to engage in a wide variety of community-service projects. "Older people are a powerful resource, and once you empower them with technology, they think of a thousand ways to enhance their lives and the lives of others," says Furlong. Warren Herrigel, 66, is one of many SeniorNet members displaying their projects at the group's annual conference this week in Washington, D.C. The retired New Jersey judge could barely type when he first sat down at a Macintosh, in 1987. Now, using a desktop-publishing program, he distributes a newsletter for 52 relatives several times a year-- complete with homemade cartoons, book reviews, installments of his autobiography and a family tree traced back to 1525. When the San Francisco earthquake in 1989 forced many of her neighbors to evacuate their homes, Rosemary Brandon, 64, put out a newsletter tracking their whereabouts and news on federal disaster relief. After the Los Angeles riots, a SeniorNet group in El Segundo, Calif., used their PCs to create fliers notifying residents how to collect diapers and formula for babies in South-Central L.A.

Computers also help nursing-home residents stay linked to the world. At Independence Village, in Peoria, Ill., 79-year-old Harold Prather communicates with a 14-year-old "pen pal" in New Zealand over SeniorNet. Confined to a wheelchair, 69-year-old Gerry Ohrt still practices his former profession-designing industrial tools--on his Tandy at the Park Hill Medical Center, in Chillicothe, Ill. "I've seen people sit here all day long and decay," says Ohrt. "This makes life tolerable for me."

Romances have blossomed over SeniorNet. JoAnn Oakes first "met" Mayer Solen, a 76-year-old widower from Carson City, Nev., during an on-line discussion about the problems of widowhood. "I liked what he said, and he liked what I said," says Oakes. They began talking on screen every night from 8 p.m. to midnight. Solen leaves love poems for her in her private electronic mailbox. They've met several times, and plan to travel to Chicago together this month. Says Oakes, "He touched my soul, on line."

Never Too Old To Go On Line | News