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Older New Yorkers And The Internet

As a nurse, Kathleen Sucich was used to helping people, and now that she is retired, she continues to do so -- by assisting some of the other 800,000 New Yorkers over the age of 65 to become more comfortable with the Internet. In some ways, it is just in time. While in the past, it might have been accepted as a fact of life that older people are far less likely than the population as a whole to use computers, this month in particular the need to bring seniors online has become a matter of urgency.

Since January 1, New Yorkers 65 years of age or older have been able to choose to receive new Medicare prescription drug coverage. But the program is deeply confusing--New York State offers 46 different plans provided through 21 companies. The best way to make sense of it, to sort it all out, is to use the Internet.

The “digital divide” between affluent and poor populations is a well-documented phenomenon. Less discussed is a digital divide based not on income or education, but on age. In 2004, the Pew Internet And American Life project found that only 22 percent of Americans 65 and older are online. This is in stark contrast to the broader adult population; a 2005 Harris poll estimates that almost 75 percent of American adults now go online.

"Many of the most serious challenges of aging -- limited mobility, isolation, reduced income, and the need for health care information and assistance -- are well suited to technology-based solutions," declares the Web site of a New York City non-profit called Older Adults Technology Services, or OATS. "Yet seniors are often excluded from these opportunities due to lack of access to technology and training."

OATS is one of the organizations that aim to provide this training, with the goal of "enhancing the social and civic engagement of older adults."

City agencies and members of the non-profit community are both striving to increase the rate of connectivity among city seniors. New York City's Department for the Aging has provided training for seniors in how to use computers and search the Internet since 1998. The department has allocated almost $13 million over the past four years to purchase computers, train staff in their use, and develop senior-friendly computer programs. There is computer access in more than 40 percent of the 300 senior centers that the department manages. A recent grant from IBM has equipped many centers with software designed for seniors, including Spanish-language software in selected locations.

Several city senior centers also participate in SeniorNet, a national organization that educates seniors about new technologies and also is host of active online discussion forums, which help to lessen the social isolation. "I'm a widow looking for social activities in my area," Ginger wrote recently on one of these message boards. "I play bridge, tennis, like to dance and am new to computers. My son has helped me sign up."

Although the Department for the Aging has engaged in increasing connectivity among seniors, it of course has a much broader mandate than this. But Older Adults Technology Services, founded in 2004, is the first citywide organization "dedicated to addressing the serious gap in technology services for seniors in New York City"

OATS has developed a 10-week senior-friendly course that initially focuses on seemingly rudimentary topics such as how to use a mouse and keyboard. (One concern about the Department for the Aging’s training programs is that they often assume a level of computer literacy that many seniors do not possess). The workbooks are in large type, and computer screens are configured for easy reading.

Once senior students have this foundation, the course provides an introduction to a wide variety of topics, such as how to use Microsoft Word, how to search Amazon, and how to send e-mail. “Google quizzes,” in which seniors search Google to answer obscure trivia questions, are a highlight of the course.One session focuses on how to conduct medical research online.

The agency is also piloting an intergenerational training program, in which teenagers mentor seniors about how to use a computer. According to lead trainer Anthony Accurso, teenagers are empowered by this opportunity to take a leadership role. Because teenagers have a natural affinity for new technologies, this is an innovative way to increase the comfort level of those seniors who are initially reluctant to learn about computers.

It was at Older Adults Technology Services that Kathleen Sucich, now 69, received the training that helped her "not to be so intimidated by the computer", and to become more politically aware as well, thanks to online resources. She feels that there is still much more to learn. But now, when she has difficulty, she knows where to turn.

Marcus Banks is a librarian at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center 

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