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Technology 101

It's Never Too Late to Become Computer Savvy

 By Maryan Pelland (

 Do older adults lack some particular skills to easily acquire computer literacy? Or is that balderdash? While people older than 50 don't learn anything as quickly as, say, school age children do, is techno-fear holding us back from screeching down the information highway?

Plenty of facts support the idea that seniors do learn to be comfortable in cyberspace. According to SPRY (Setting Priorities for Retirement Years) many boomers are computer wizards–and adults older than boomers are going online, too, drawn by the lure of convenient, inexpensive communication with family and friends, accessible health information and exploring new venues.

A recent Georgia Institute of Technology study reports seniors as the fastest growing group of computer users. Of those seniors who use the Internet, 58% of the 50-plus group surf one to four hours a day, compared to only 42% of younger users. Another 30% are online more than five hours a day. Older men are more likely to surf than women, though women's usage is growing. One third of older users have replaced TV viewing with computer activities.

          Lots of older computer users are self-taught, and most have been cyber-active for fewer than two years. Does that mean there really is no ``learning disorder" to keep seniors from becoming completely savvy? What about those who can't cozy up to a Pentium III or who would love to send email but feel they can't master the skills?

          David Mitchell, professor of psychology at Loyola University of Chicago and director of its Center for Aging says, ``There seems to be nothing maturational here–nothing in the psychology of older adults to keep them from technology. We learn more slowly as we age–that's normal. But in this age group, there are those who are light years ahead in computer knowledge, those who don't even feel comfortable turning the machine on, and everything in between."

          John Oussoren, director of Canada's Chalmers Institute at the Vancouver School of Theology, agrees. ``Fear and resistance to learning a new culture is part of it for a number of older adults. But my experience is that patience, encouragement and affirmation help older adults learn to become proficient in handling computers."

Good news! Other research bears that out. Physical changes happen as we age–no surprise to anyone. Some of them can, and do, affect vision, cognitive learning, hand/eye coordination, joint flexibility and response time. But the computer environment is an excellent medium to overcome or adapt to these changes, users just need to find the right stuff.

          Roy Green, AARP lobbyist on financial issues says, ``Older users may not have the equipment they need to be comfortable online."

Is it difficult to get the right equipment, and find senior-friendly training? Surveys and interview responses indicate that for most, standard hardware is fine. Maureen, a self-taught computer artist, says, ``I'm 66 years old. I started using a computer two years ago to organize my art. My monitor is black and white, but it works fine for me."

For some people, a larger monitor with good lighting, a special keyboard design–and there are many available–the right desk and properly designed seating can overcome physical challenges. Hardware choices include computers, interactive television, laptops and mobile phones with email and Internet capability.

          Kathy and Charlie Koehler use the Internet a lot, emailing family, banking and bill paying online and surfing for vacation information, entertainment and shopping.

          Charlie says, ``We knew we needed a good, clear display–big enough. And Kathy was afraid computing would be hard to learn."

They decided on ``WebTV," a product that connects any television to the Internet. A growing group of consumers with a touch of techno-fear opt for WebTV to get the functionality of cyber-space with the safe familiarity of TV.

          As for software, experts say start with a good word-processing program. Games such as crossword puzzles, card games or board games can be relaxing and help you learn to command a computer. Once you get the hang of it, you'll want software to go online, perhaps some financial programs and of course, email.

          It's not tough. Computer work is self-paced–go at it for a while, save your project, and return to it later–useful to anyone with an impairment or to beginners. Software offers ``accessible" accommodations for people with physical limitations. To get the know-how, find an affordable class, experienced with older users.

Ask questions–do they offer step-by-step learning, self-pacing, frequent breaks, good lighting, larger print, small class size and time for tasks and repetition? Find a class with peer helpers, encouraging friendly, open discussion.

SeniorNet, a San Francisco-based organization, conducts studies clearly showing a tidal wave of 50-plus users surfing the Net. Within that group, people 65 and older are jumping in with both feet. Yes, there can be physical concerns dictating the type of equipment needed, but seniors don't have huge hurdles to overcome before exploring computers and the Internet.

          A study from Portland State University squelches thoughts that older Americans can't keep pace in the 21st Century. The study concludes, ``Seniors with discretionary income to purchase home PCs are achieving literacy at the same rate as younger adults. The not overcoming technophobia, but finding enough affordable places to train, learn new applications, and improve computer skills."

Its bottom line–you're never too old.


Maryan Pelland is a freelance Internet consultant and writer whose byline has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Sun Newspapers, Just Write Magazine, Pleaides Web, Black and White World Web and Copley Press. Her writing focuses on photography, the Internet and Boomer Culture. Maryan Pelland's Web address is



Doing Windows Isn't That Difficult


The skill needed to demystify Windows software used in most home computing is understanding the ``directory tree" structure. Work you do on a computer is stored in a file, pictured in Windows as a cartoon file folder.

          Each file or document, the work you created, is saved to its folder on the hard drive (usually named ``C-Drive"). That folder is identified by a path that includes the name of the program that created it (such as WordPerfect), a file folder (maybe named ``My Letters") and the name of the document (``Letter to Tom," perhaps).

          You ask the computer to find that letter. You tell it to look in the tree called ``C-Drive" for the program ``WordPerfect" and then the folder ``My Letters" to find the letter to Tom. It looks like this when it's typed: C:/WordPerfect/My Letters/Letter to Tom.

          Windows lets you use your mouse to point at the tree containing those items, and click on each as it appears on your screen. They open, like Russian dolls that stack inside each other, showing you the next level.

          The concept is exactly like diagrams you have seen of family trees or corporate management teams. The top box on the diagram stands alone, the next layer has several branches, the next has a few more and so on. Once you equate the directory tree idea to something as familiar as a family tree, you hold the key to almost any Windows software program. They are all based on this idea.



For more information about older adults and technology:


Spry Foundation

National Learning Center American Society on Aging

Older Adults and Learning Technology Project

AARP computer and aging resources

Microsoft Accessibles


To find classes available for older computer users, contact the American Assn. of Junior Colleges or contact SPRY at




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