SeniorNet encourages seniors to find ways to connect online

As many as 7 million seniors are now online, perhaps exploding once and for all the erroneous assumption that older people are fearful of technology.

Two years ago, executives at Intel recognized seniors as a viable market, and well they should. According to a 1995 survey conducted by SeniorNet, 30 percent of online computer users are 55 or older. That same age group makes up 20 percent of the population and holds 40 percent of discretionary income.

It's little wonder that Intel was among companies that donated computers to the nonprofit SeniorNet, which devotes itself to the promotion and support of computer use and technologies by older adults.

SeniorNet grew out of a research project begun in 1986 by Mary Furlong, a professor of education at the University of San Francisco. The study was to determine if computers and telecommunications could enhance the lives of older adults.

The answer, of course, was a resounding "yes," and led to the establishment of SeniorNet-sponsored Learning Centers across the country.

Furlong started with the purchase of inexpensive computers and rented TV sets, setting up her initial workshops in church basements, senior centers, nursing homes and schools.

Now, SeniorNet has more than 20,000 members and operates more than 100 Learning Centers around the country. It publishes a quarterly newsletter and a variety of instructional materials.

Members learn and teach others to use computers and communications technologies for publishing, business management and communications. To date, SeniorNet has trained more than 90,000 seniors to use computers and access the Internet.

"The idea was to create an online community," said Furlong, "connecting older adults from around the country and the world, allowing them to share interests and knowledge."

What Furlong actually discovered was how technology supports a sense of community, which is an opinion shared by many individuals contacted at SeniorNet and the American Association of Retired Person's online site.

SeniorNet member Walden Yale of Springfield, Ill., said, "I've been amazed with the ease of getting to know a number of members and having these experiences develop into splendid friendships."

Last September, Yale and his wife visited a legendary SeniorNet member known as Yanky, who lives in Maine, where they met half a dozen more friends in person, offline.

"Just imagine what this experience can mean to far greater numbers of the nation's steadily growing older population," said Walden. "Elders who retain and develop new interests, who continue to experience a zest for living, long past the time they would otherwise become reclusive or disenchanted with the remainder of their lives."

Walden said many SeniorNet members are homebound because of disease.

"They are the most interesting, enjoyable, literate and knowledgeable people I've found," he said. Their online friends and activities have been a cure for loneliness, as they establish e-mail correspondence with kindred souls.

Mary, 63, is having the time of her life looking on while her midlife children, 42 and 37, become acquainted for the first time as adults. Until the advent of computer technology, this would have been impossible because Mary's eldest child, Chuck, lives in Bombay, while her daughter, Laura, lives just north of Los Angeles. Chuck left home 25 years ago to join the Air Force. Since then, the two have lived in widely separated geographical locations, occupied with marriage, family and careers.

Until recently, when they exchanged e-mail addresses at Mary's urging, they'd had little contact.

Their online discussions, which they "copy" to Mary, included the working out of childhood issues.

Mary chimes in "bold face" once in awhile, not "correcting," but allowing them to read her perspective as well.

At a time in her life when older women separated from family might feel lonely and perhaps resentful about their children's neglect, Mary is in the thick of their online relationship.

She reports that she often can be found early mornings, opening the mail at her computer and laughing gleefully. She is frequently proud, sometimes moved to tears.