Computer class captivates young-at-heart at S.F. Home

It's a common belief that in order to master computing, you need to be young. If you're still on your first set of teeth, so much the better.

But while it's true that kids are frequently called on to sort out their parents' computer problems, it's really a myth that older people can't learn computing.

So says Michael Wickler, activities team coordinator at San Francisco's Jewish Home for the Aged.

Part of Wickler's job is planning exciting activities and classes for the 444 residents of the home, located in the city's Excelsior District. Wickler has recently been teaching some of the residents to word-process and play cards on the computer, and soon, he hopes, he will have these young-at-heart seniors surfing the Internet.

The home's involvement with new technology can be traced back to former resident Edward Kranzler and his daughter, Ruth Amber.

In the fall of 1996, Kranzler, a Dachau survivor, developed an interest in computing and the Internet. Amber knew that her employer, the Bank of America, was upgrading its computers, and decided to encourage her father's curiosity by donating an old computer to the Home.

The gift was gratefully accepted, and when Wickler offered computer classes, Kranzler was a regular attendee. Sadly, Kranzler passed away in December and is sorely missed by his fellow residents.

Wickler admits that he was nervous when he started the computer class.

"Learning computing is a big leap for a lot of our residents," he says. "The concept of linking or saving documents is foreign to some of them, but once they catch on, they're fascinated by how much easier their lives become."

This is certainly true for Gerda Fischer, 73. A Holocaust survivor and prolific writer, Fischer has been a featured poet on San Francisco's KUSF-FM and at many Bay Area readings, writing under the pen name Vera Darosci.

With the help of the new computer, Fischer is writing a novel, "Gateway to My Mind." She also assists Wickler in editing the home's monthly newsletter.

Fischer admits that it took her awhile to get used to the computer. "At first I was so scared of it; I treated it as though it had a bomb in it," she says.

She shrugs her shoulders and laughs. "But then, you know, I was intrigued, and I said to myself, `It's not going to bite me.'"

Interjects Wickler, chuckling, "That's right. I remember, in the beginning, having to do a lot of reassuring. I would say to people, `You're not going to hurt it and it's not going to hurt you.'"

Says Fischer of Wickler, "He has a fantastic patience."

Jack Wexler, 87, who aims to write his life story on the computer, agrees. "Michael is a wonderful instructor," he says.

His wife, Myrtle, grumbles good-humoredly that Wexler "sometimes goes down [stairs] to write on the computer, and forgets to come back."

Meanwhile Pearl Portuges, 77, and Lillian Wein, 71, are enjoying using the computer for games like solitaire and blackjack. Lillian is impressed with how the computer automatically straightens her solitaire deck, but has one complaint — she'd like it to give her better cards.

While proud of his students' successes, Wickler would like to see improvements in the home's computing resources. On his wish list are more machines, easier interfaces, a separate e-mail file for each resident who wants one and a resident-run Web site.

One step at a time.

For now, Jack Wexler is happy when he manages to save a document. He waves a sheet of computer paper from his last effort. Myrtle Wexler smiles.

"By the time you're 90," she tells him, "you should have it down pat."