Wallingford seniors spanning 'gray gap'
"I'm kind of a tech weenie at heart. I enjoy sharing my knowledge. I just enjoy teaching. And all through my life I've done a little bit of this stuff."
These are the words of Jim Olney, a volunteer computer lab instructor at Wallingford Senior Center. The computer lab is located in the lower level of a huge brick classic revival building. Once a home for orphaned and troubled girls, it now houses 20 nonprofit agencies.
He covers computer basics, Internet, and word processing in his four-week course for seniors. There are open lab hours, 8:30 to 4:30, when classes are not going on, and peer mentoring.
Jim feels it's important to teach seniors to explore the web in a way that's personally interesting. He believes in providing an enjoyable, low-pressure learning environment.
"We're always looking at what other courses to offer and how best to offer them."
"We're really pleased to have the big monitors and we're looking forward to having a little more pizzazz with the computing system itself. People are now amazed at the resources that are out there. And with some headphones on, they'll be able to listen to music, to news, to all kinds of things. That adds a new dimension that I think is going to help overcome the natural resistance to trying new things," said Jim.
A 2002 recipient of the City of Seattle Technology Matching Fund, the lab requested the money to upgrade their seven computers and expand their programs and hours of operation. A peer mentoring program of seniors training seniors is also in the works. They will create a sound barrier to minimize noise, extend the network to include a volunteer computer, and target program development and outreach efforts.
The lab sports two Macs and six PCs, "orphaned bank machines," Jim Olney calls them. "But, none of the machines have any sound card, and they don't have a great graphics card. So, now we're getting machines that will have sound and enough speed to make the graphics pop along. And I think it's going to be a whole different experience for them."
Age 55 appears to be emerging as the "gray gap" dividing line. But the good news is that four million Americans aged 65 and older are online, sending email to family members and surfing for important information.
According to a September, 2001, Pew Internet & American Life Project report, "Fully 81 percent of people who say they definitely will not go online are over 50. Fifty-six percent of those over age 65 say they will definitely not go online, compared to just six percent who say they definitely plan to go online. The five top uses of the Web by senior citizens are: using email, looking up hobby information, seeking financial information, reading the news, and checking weather reports."
"You know, everybody in the class has, I think, overcome the fear of technology," according to Jim. "And the very first day, I tell them that they can't break anything. Or, if they mess something up, it's nothing that can't be easily straightened out. So, the idea of paralysis by fear, I think, they get over pretty quick."
Tom, 71, has no such paralysis. A Croatian immigrant who’s been in this country for 40 years, Tom is excited about the possibilities presented by the Internet.
"Oh! I wish my father was alive (so) he can see the miracles," Tom said. "Instantaneously, I could talk and see picture and be able to communicate. And ask him for advice. It's precious. No money in this world can buy."
According to Susannah Fox, research director for the Pew Internet & American Life Project, wired seniors may be small in number, but they make up for that by their enthusiasm for doing things online. "More than any other age group, wired seniors see the Internet as a way to keep in touch with family members."
"There's an enormous benefit," according to Tom. "For me, in particular, I can be in touch with my family, with my daughter and my son. They use the computer extensively. It's miracles. It's just incredible that I can say, 'Thank God that I'm living in this time.'"
Tom stays connected to friends and family in Europe. He reads newspapers and listens to European radio broadcasts.
"First, I like to read a Croatian paper. I speak Croatian, Polish and Russian. So, I like to read the newspapers that are not accessible in the library. I can get to the computer, I can be able to read them. I can also get a radio station direct transmission. What is amazing (is to) hear this and be approximately 9000 nautical miles from one continent to another. You can instantaneously listen to that program that is transmitting from that station in that particular part of the world!"
According to the Pew report, many wired seniors are newcomers to the Internet who have been coaxed into going online by their children or grandchildren. Once logged on, many become eager Internet users. They are more likely than younger Americans to be online on a typical day and seniors are quite clear about the virtues they see in the Internet. The most fervent wired seniors say it has helped them connect better to loved ones and makes it easier get the information they seek.
But many older Americans are resistant to the Internet's allure.
"Sometimes there's a reluctance to do something where you don't know what the result is going to be. And so that's where the next step is for us. We'll have one machine set up with a video projector so they can actually follow my mouse movements rather than my words. They'll be able to see it. And that's gonna facilitate their trying new things."
Jim, who is in real estate, told us about his dismay with one senior, not from Wallingford Senior Center, who resists getting wired. Jim has been mentoring and trying to inspire this man, who is also in real estate, to join the 21st century.
"He said things have slowed down," according to Jim. "And I told him, you really need to advertise on the Internet.
And he just said flat out, he's old fashioned. That's what his words were. He's old fashioned."
"He's doing things the way he's always done them. But things aren't working quite as smoothly right at the moment. He's being left out of a whole class of younger consumers that use the Internet to do their learning, their shopping, their buying."
According to Wallingford lab program director Anne Derome, "We dream about a larger lab eventually with more computers, with headsets so that people like Tom, who's listening to Croation radio, can listen to it without someone else being able to hear what they're doing. And we certainly feel fortunate for the support we get from the Department of Information Technology because without it, we wouldn't be doing what we're doing."
"We have some very caring, patient senior volunteers. Except for Jim, most of them are seniors who come in and do assisted labs. So when new users come in and are practicing what they've learned in Jim's labs and are stuck, there's somebody there to step them through it. So, they actually learn through their mistakes. Most people who've been involved feel pretty positive and feel some accomplishment. Because ... they're starting to realize, 'Oh, I CAN learn this! I can do what other people of multiple generations younger than me are doing. I can feel connected in that way to society and to the community and what's happening.' I want them to have successes. I do."
"My biggest objective is getting the word out to people," said Anne. "I think people don't know, one, that the senior center's here, and two, that we're offering this lab assistance and this computer opportunity for folks. It just takes a while."
Word of mouth can be a tremendous force in fostering new learning in the lab.
"That grassroots rumble is starting," said Anne. "I think we're just at the beginning and I think it's a really exciting time. There's a lot of places to go and a lot of seniors to reach out there. And a lot of things that the seniors have to learn and could learn. There are incredible opportunities."