Senior Citizen's Guide digital books
Senior Citizen's Guide to Philadelphia

Seniors Online and Off

“I’ve lived this long without it – who needs it? – it’ll take me longer to learn than the time I have left…I’m busy and perfectly happy without it.”

Guess the subject….

Yup, computers. People under age 50 can’t live without them, and most of those over age 65 can’t live with them.

As someone born with an overdeveloped empathy gene and very little technical know-how, I feel for you. It’s horrible being left out of conversations because you are clueless as others babble on about websites, Twitter, YouTube, and Amazon. And worse, being shut out of opportunities because everyone else is on email, or the job requires basic computer skills, or the discount is only for “online” users. A googol used to mean the largest number; then two 20-year-olds spelled it wrong and created a fortune and a new verb, “ to google” – which is now the way most of the world finds out information, with the exception of those over 65.

Ninety-five percent of young people, (aged 18 -29) use the internet. They go “online” to get their news, connect with their friends, conduct their schoolwork, seek and apply for jobs, shop, play, and relax. Among the Medicare set, only 43 % use the Internet. So while nearly every kid is communicating one way, older Americans are communicating another. It’s what they call the Digital Divide.

Computers contain thousands of tiny electrical switches located in microchips. As expected, each switch can be either off or on. The various combinations of which switches are off and which are on dictate what the computer is doing at any given moment. You can imagine that with thousands of switches operating there are virtually an infinite number of combinations of "offs" and "ons". This is why computers can function in so many different ways .

The Digital Divide was identified under the Clinton years as an issue needing a remedy. The U.S. government Department of Commerce issued a report called “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide – the Have’s and the Have-not’s” in 1998. A year later “Closing the Digital Divide," the first national summit on digital divide issues was held on Thursday December 9, 1999 at the U.S. Department of Commerce. There, some 800 representatives from the Federal Government, the technology industry, civil rights and non-profit communities, grassroots community organizations, and the general public discussed existing public and private initiatives aimed at closing the technology gap.
The gap has not only remained pretty much the same for those who were 65 12 years ago, according to the leading authority, the Pew Internet and American Life Project, it has also deepened in implications.

What does it mean to not be online? To not use the Internet as a tool for communication, education, conversation, transportation, relaxation, and job applications?
As one woman living in a HUD housing unit told me when I asked, “What do you think it means when you hear on television ‘Go to www….’?”

She looked at me hard and said with some anger in her voice:” IT MEANS I’M NEVER GOING TO GET IT!”

What are the barriers for older Americans? Here in Philadelphia, we have one of the largest elderly populations in the nation. And more than one-third of that population is near or below the poverty line. Being poor, being old, and being of color are all predictors in not having the access or skill for technology. Tremendous efforts have been made over the past decade to provide free or low-cost Internet education and access. For example, every branch and the Central Senior Service Center of the Free Library of Philadelphia have computers available with fast Internet connections, at no charge to the users.

Almost every senior center has some form of lab, class, or space for seniors to learn the computer.

So why have the numbers remained so low? Why the Digital Divide? Access and skill are two key barriers to elders using the Internet – but they could be overcome if the third barrier, intimidation, was not there. In reality, this technology began among the general population less than 20 years ago. It took radio broadcasters 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million, television 13 years, and the Internet just four. The cumulative knowledge, jargon, and know-how moved so quickly that many older adults feel they have been left behind and there’s no catching up.

Because you can’t “unburn the toast”, an older generation imagines that if you strike a wrong key or the screen goes black or a box pops up, it’s ruined. Not so. The Digital Age is about on – off. Computers have no idea what the alphabet is. The only thing a computer understands is whether switches are off or on. When you turn it off, it starts all over again.

You may not know how to make a Thanksgiving dinner, but you can learn how to boil a pot of soup. Similarly, you don’t need to know how a computer works – you just need someone to get you on the Internet. The Internet is the most nourishing use of computers to elders.

Once you see the power of what this tool can be, how mobile you can be sitting right there for free, you may find new self-confidence and stimulation – as well as inevitable frustration, which Dr. Andrew Weil says is a secret to healthy aging because frustrating new tasks build more brain connectors. But to have the world’s largest library, post office, switchboard, encyclopedia, and TV station at your fingertips – isn’t it worth a try?

Our seniors deserve and have earned the right to be fully participatory and connected to society as everyone else. If the Internet is the means to that end, we must find a way. Soup’s on! And the toast won’t burn. Come and get it!

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