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April 2, 2001
Online Can Be A Lifeline

By Carol Milano

illustration for Rx.magazine story on seniors online
Carrie Cox

March 12, 2001

first letter harry, 82, had begun to spend much of his time in bed, sleeping the day away. His serious health problems were a factor, but his wife became alarmed that he seemed to be giving up on life. She recruited their teenage grandson to hook up an inexpensive computer and give him basic lessons. Though Harry couldn't even type, the new technology intrigued him. Replacing his midday nap with Internet surfing, he soon began emailing his daughter across the country. "My goal is to become a computer sophisticate," he told her.

Harry's enthusiasm is typical, report researchers at Duke University. In a four-month study, 27 residents of a Durham, North Carolina, retirement community were trained to use email and the Internet. At an average age of 77, volunteers in the study attended classes three times a week for two weeks. They worked on donated Macintosh computers and had brief homework assignments and ample access to the computers between classes.

Gaining computer skills led to a trend toward decreased loneliness and less depression among participants in the pilot study. Months after the study, 60 percent of trainees were using the Internet on their own. "We found no negatives," observes geriatrician Heidi White, M.D., senior fellow at the Duke Center For Aging and Human Development.

What do seniors explore online? One Durham participant seeks out websites on her hobbies, such as quilting and bonsai; others check stock prices or sports information. Harry visits sites cited as resources in newspaper articles and checks local travel information. "If I want to go to a new place, I get door-to-door directions [online], which are terrific every time I use them," he recalls.

"My patients bring in things they've read on the Web -- often health-related," reports another geriatrician, Barrie Raik, M.D., of the Irving S. Wright Center for Aging at Cornell Medical Center. "Older people have more health problems, so they're likely to look up things about themselves." Some of Harry's friends have even set up databases to track their medications and visits to the doctor.

Senior fears

Opting to go online can cause anxiety, especially about the expense or difficulty involved. "New, less costly equipment lowers one barrier: fear of crashing or breaking the computer. Seniors are very concerned about doing something wrong," Dr. White explains.

And typing skills are not necessary. Only a lengthy email letter requires more than a simple one-finger typing style. Even folks with arthritis who cannot type because of pain or disfigurement can still manage to use the keyboard with one or two fingers since speed is irrelevant, Dr. White points out.

Can any senior learn to use a computer? "Most older people can learn to use a computer with little difficulty, but if they have early cognitive impairment then it is frustrating because of the detail and attention that are required. They might be still trading stocks, but have forgotten how to get online," says Dr. Raik.


Though Harry couldn't even type, the new technology intrigued him. Replacing his midday nap with Internet surfing, he soon began emailing his daughter across the country.


Adaptive devices or techniques can surmount most physical barriers, though, says Dr. White. "To get around visual limits, magnify various aspects of the screen. Arthritis isn't a computer problem -- speed is not required. The mouse is usually easy to use, but if not, get a roller ball. A sound card lets you hear as well as see things."

Connecting with people electronically actually eases many old-age hassles. "For seniors who can't walk, drive, or travel to visit other people -- or for an older adult caring for someone with a serious illness who rarely gets out -- computers can lessen feelings of loneliness, social isolation, and depression," notes Dr. White. A connection to the Internet is a way to expand and enhance any senior's social circle, she believes.

Gaining access

Basic email and Internet skills are taught -- often free of charge -- in many communities at public libraries, senior centers, and adult education classrooms. Harry attended free three-hour sessions at his local veterans' hospital, for example.

It's worth seeking a class designed specifically for older adults, who often prefer to learn at a slower pace. The Durham trainer provided a step-by-step manual and had students work in pairs. An "email-pal" program with Kansas junior-high-school students proved as popular as the written manual.

Seniors on fixed incomes can avoid the costs of getting online; if seniors are mobile, a weekly visit to a local library or an Internet cafe may provide enough email or Internet time. For a home computer, a late 1990s model handed down from a grandchild who is upgrading, or one purchased from a resale computer shop, will probably have adequate software. Even the newest equipment can be purchased at a low price. Make sure that any computer purchased comes with a modem. Or, if you're a senior with cable television, ask your cable company if it has broadband services through a cable modem.

The cost of sending an email is less than that of a long-distance telephone call, and free email accounts are available. Check with Lycos, Yahoo, or Hotmail. Even free Internet service is available -- from Juno or from NetZero, Harry's choice. "Sometimes I have to wait a long time [to connect], and look at lots of ads," Harry says. "I may get knocked off and have to start again, even." Despite any delay, he says, "It's an exciting new way to communicate with children and grandchildren. It's easy, and it's fun!"

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