Putting the e into e-mail: Elders learn computer skills

The first signs are the muffled clicking and tapping echoing through the halls. Then, there's deep buzzing, which abruptly stops with a pop. And then, conversations flow dominated with words like "e-mail" and "off-line."

Modem Mavens lurk around the Revere, Mass., Jack Satter House, a senior-assisted living complex. The problem grows exponentially every week, and the staff and tenants are responsible. Neither of them can stop it — assuming they wanted to, which they don't.

The Mavens are a group of tenants who, for all intents, live in the building's new computer center, sending an endless stream of e-mail, running spreadsheets on their finances and exploring more Internet sites than Magellan. The Mavens' interest in computers comes from their strong desire to continue learning.

"I think it's time that this generation joined the younger generation in the electronic age," says Maven Elaine Pettler. "I don't want to stop learning."

Pettler and the Mavens aren't alone. Computer literacy among Jewish seniors — who were once content to spend their final years in solitude or playing bingo, chess and other games — is spreading rapidly in heavily wired centers such as Boston and the Bay Area.

Satter, the Goldie & Louis Trilling House in the southern suburb of Randolph and the Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly's complex in the Boston enclave of Brighton have all opened computer centers within the past year.

And seniors are using them to reconnect with and explore a world they once helped run. Each computer center has been funded in part with a federal Housing and Urban Development grant.

"When I saw that my e-mail prompt said, 'You have two messages,' I was ecstatic," says Trilling resident Nettie Sooper.

"Having a computer at a senior facility like this proves that age is only a figure," adds Maven Asher Zamansky, "because our minds are very young and active."

Several dozen local Jewish seniors have learned to use the computers through courses each facility offers. At Jewish Community Housing, for example, most tenants begin with Introduction to Computers. Over four sessions, they learn skills like how to turn on the computer. Introduction to Word Processing, a five-or-six session course, is next. Tenants may also take Cards and Art. About 35 tenants have taken all three courses and are enrolled in the newest class, The Internet and E-mail.

"I expected people to be more fearful," says Gaye Freed, director of group services. "I know that children can pick it up [computer literacy] quicker. But so many of the people here are fearless."

Seniors help each other during class. Some Satter residents who took the first course there now serve as mentors to the tenants in the current class.

"You have something to talk about with other people besides your aches and pains," Pettler says.

Many tenants are using computers for the first time but are using basic skills they've had for years, such as typing and bookkeeping. That's helped ease their tension around the machines.

Satter resident Millie Vogel once used WordPerfect as a secretary at a school in New York. Trilling resident Max Clere does his correspondence and finances on his 15-year-old Apple 2C personal computer. He frequently uses Trilling's computers, which have modems, to locate pictures of nature.

"I'm very partial to the arts, music, paintings and lithographs," Clere says.

In contrast, Jewish Community Housing resident Bension Frankel is writing his family history on the computer. The stories supplement a family tree the Russian immigrant developed. Because he's blind, staffers have set up a special keyboard for him and a font featuring characters slightly smaller than those found on building blocks.

"It's very good for old people to learn," says Frankel, who uses the computer center three or four times a week.

The computers' modems have brought many tenants closer to their families. Satter resident Minna Annis receives e-mail from her nephew, Rabbi Tamchum "Thomas" Cohen, an Orthodox rabbi in Israel, every other week.

"To save a 32-cent stamp, you buy a computer," Annis says. "Having nine e-mail addresses, I think I can be kept busy."

"Some of my relatives have gotten e-mail addresses for themselves, and I hope to correspond with them," Jewish Community Housing resident Lyubov Ozerova adds.