Skip to main content

You are here

Silver Surfers

by Cheryl M. Keyser + photos by Chris Jackson

Silver Surfers

There's no reason to let technology pass you by — unless that's how you want it.

Alice Noll traveled to Italy and France with a group from St. Andrew’s Church in Waynesboro. Among the items she packed were an iPad mini, and an iPhone. The former schoolteacher had a distinct advantage over others her age because she used a computer in her classes and both her husband and son are computer-savvy and were able to help her.

“In the evenings, I would log onto the hotel Wi-Fi and send emails to my family and friends,” she says. Alice is not alone in her use of the latest technology. Many of her generation as well as those older have mastered the clicking and clacking of the keyboard. Al Werking, 85, a retiree from the National Park Service who lives at Homewood in Williamsport uses his home computer mainly for genealogical research —accessing various databases, he has traced his family ties to Germany as far back as 1624.

Anecdotally there are all kinds of reports of older adults using the latest devices — from a gentleman in assisted living who manages his financial portfolio to another using Skype to help grandkids with homework, and many others posting their photos to family on Facebook. Computers are and have been a key part of life. They are so ubiquitous that nobody even comments on the fact that to register for the now infamous Affordable Care Act, almost everyone is doing it online.

It is generally assumed that those of age are the least familiar with computers. “This is a huge misconception that older adults don’t know what they are doing with computers and other devices, but some are very much in touch with new technology,” says Leslie Smith, board chairman of SeniorNet, an online nonprofit organization that provides computer and Internet education to older adults around the country.

A report from the Pew Research Center notes that in its latest survey 53 percent of adults 65 and older used their computers to access the Internet or to send email, with 34 percent using social networking sites. To fill the growing need, many websites have sprung up to provide information and training on computers for older adults like skillfulsenior.com, which focuses on basic navigation skills, and GCFLearnFree.org, which covers technology, online literacy and a wide range of additional tech-related topics. There are also sites offering computers designed for seniors, which they claim are easier for older adults to use.

Hagerstown is servicing this age group with computer classes specifically geared them. “We take people at their ability level,” said Hilary Lo, community educator with the Area Agency on Aging, or AAA. “They don’t feel intimidated that they can’t keep up the same pace as someone younger.”

Two instructors — Joe Brining and Bill Baschke — work individually with those over 60 to teach them the basics of using a computer and other specific tasks. Many want to learn to communicate with their grandchildren — a major interest — but in the case of one attendee, Linda Knight, how to find a job. A retiree from the Washington County Public School and Food Service system, she is preparing herself for a new work environment which will require this knowledge. Dale Kinnery, another computer lab member, uses his laptop to pay bills. The service at the AAA is free and the whole center is equipped with Wi-Fi. These are just two students of the many who have passed through the computer lab, which has been in operation since 2008. “Sometimes we are so busy there are not enough seats,” says Joe.

Both instructors are also retirees — Joe from IBM and Bill from Bethlehem Steel — and both volunteer with other AAA programs as well. “People come to get on the Internet, set up an e-mail account, and take photos,” says Bill. “Recently, a 96-year-old man came in with his 92-year-old wife. They had an iPad and wanted to learn how to use it.”

Hagerstown Community College provides a similar teaching experience at its computer classes taught at Valley Mall. “We have classes twice a week for five week periods,” says instructor Carvel Wright, 78, who has been teaching at HCC for over 10 years. “We have had students who use everything from the Internet to email, sending photos, social media, and Skype.” Sometimes people think they have to know how to type, but Carvel eases their concern by telling them “the two-finger method is just fine.”

As the computer has become a preferred means of communication among family members, a new phenomenon has occurred. Carvel calls it “hand-me-ups.” The younger generation purchases a new computer and passes on their older one to their grandparents.

For some, it’s hard to imagine anyone of any age not using a computer today, but there are some holdouts. However, the reasons aren’t always just because they refuse to adapt or embrace new technology. One retired judge, who preferred not to have his name in the story uses email at work, but refuses to have a computer at home for privacy concerns.

So common has new technology become that most retirement communities come equipped with a computer room for the use of those residents who don’t have their own, and this is usually listed among the amenities they provide.

The United States is not alone in spreading computer literacy among its older population. “We have received inquiries from Russia and the National Aging Committee of China about our methods,” notes Leslie. “Twenty-nine years ago when SeniorNet started computers were a hobby, now they are a must-have.”