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Senior Surfers

How Vermonters are bridging the digital-age divide


Published March 30, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

Christine Litchfield and her husband bought a computer in 2000, but the retired first-grade teacher admits she still doesn't really know what it can do. After nearly five years, they haven't used their scanner once.

That's why the Barre resident signed up for a beginner computer and Internet class at Small Dog Electronics. The Waitsfield-based Macintosh store geared the session specifically toward older users like Litchfield -- and dubbed it "Silver Surfers."

The former teacher was one of an octet at the Tuesday night class in mid-March. Before it began, the students introduced themselves to each other, and to instructor Dawn D'Angelillo, Small Dog's marketing director, who asked them what they hoped to get out of the evening lesson. Some of the students had specific concerns; one Brookfield man said he'd like to learn how to throw computer files away. Litchfield wasn't sure exactly what she was looking for, other than locating the spell checker on her word-processing program. "There's so much stuff on the screen," she said. "I don't know what it means."

These seniors are not alone in their computing confusion -- Americans in the 65-and-up set are least likely to use computers or to surf the Internet. Data from a January 2005 Pew Internet & American Life Project survey show that 81 percent of Americans adults aged 18-29 are online. That number drops to 53 percent for Americans 50-64, and down to 26 percent for Americans 65 and older.

Some might argue there's no need to teach old dogs new tricks, so to speak. But as more and more information moves online, seniors are increasingly being left behind. Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew project, says that when the center released its first reports on elders' Internet use in 2001, most respondents reported learning to use computers to communicate with grandkids.

But things are changing quickly. Fox says she's not necessarily advocating for seniors to go online -- she merely studies the trends. But, she writes in an email interview, "In 2005, so much vital information is online and so many people assume that most Americans have Internet access, I worry about the great majority of seniors who not only don't go online, they don't even know anyone with access. Are they able to get the best, most up-to-date health or finance information?"

She cites one recent example: the new Medicare drug plan. "It asks seniors to make a very important decision based on print brochures that the Wash-ington Post found to be out-of-date," she writes. "The only source of updated information is online, at But how many seniors know about that source? Do their loved ones and caregivers know about it?"

Accessing online health information was also the focus of a January 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report. It basically mirrored the Pew findings, adding that seniors' access also varies with income. Only 15 percent of those with household incomes of less than $20,000 a year have ever been online. Seniors who make more than $50,000 a year are far more likely to log on -- 65 percent of them report using the 'net.

Local efforts to help more seniors log on are happening in classes at libraries, nonprofits, senior centers and computer retailers like Small Dog. The Mac store offers a variety of workshops for new computer users; the session for seniors was the first of its kind.

D'Angelillo decided to offer it because she saw a need. "I started seeing people my parents' age coming in and asking for help," she said. She got the name from a seniors' group in the United Kingdom, where Silver Surfer clubs are common. In fact, May 27, 2005 is Silver Surfers day in the UK.

Though Christine Litchfield, the retired Barre teacher, might seem a little behind the times, she's ahead of most of her peers. She took the initiative to buy a computer years ago.

One woman walked into the class at Small Dog, and when D'Angelillo asked, "So are you PC or Mac?" She replied, "I'm nothing." The woman, who asked to be identified only as "Priscilla," has so far avoided buying a computer. "I haven't been concerned that I need one," she said, "but now I feel like I'm missing out." Priscilla admitted to registering for a free email address, but never checked to see if she had mail. She took the class to find out what she needs to know when she shops for her first Mac (or PC -- she hasn't decided).

At $49, the class was more expensive than buying a book, but books aren't necessarily the best way to learn about computers. When D'Angelillo asked the group if any of them had purchased a book to help them, most raised their hands. A few even reached into their bags to show off copies of Computers for Dummies. Apparently, they haven't been much help.

Studies show that most computer users learned their skills through a combination of human-to-human instruction and trial-and-error. Most younger users pick up their know-how in school, at jobs or from friends -- options that aren't available to most older Americans.

But teaching these skills to a group of older adults is difficult, as the Silver Surfers session demonstrated. First of all, though it was a beginner class, everyone started at a different level. Watching it was like observing a basic math class for kids in kindergarten through third grade -- some students are almost ready to do multiplication, while others don't know what a number is.

D'Angelillo spent time explaining the various parts of a computer -- she passed around sample hard drives and processors -- and demonstrating simple tricks, such as how to use the mouse or touchpad to move an open window around on the screen. To people who grew up using computers, it's a function so basic that it seems like common sense -- of course you can move the windows around on the screen. But D'Angelillo's students had never seen it done before; they'd never even thought to ask how to do it.

D'Angelillo's difficult task was made more so by a technical glitch that shut down the shared network soon after class began. The eight iBooks Small Dog had provided became useless. Unless students had brought their own laptops, D'Angelillo couldn't give hands-on lessons, and couldn't get any of them connected to the Internet. For most of her presentation, she had to tell rather than show.

A systems administrator tried to fix the computers, but he couldn't get them back online, which only reinforced the message that learning to use and fix these machines is hard. "This is why I don't want to buy a computer," Priscilla interjected when D'Angelillo announced the network was down. At the end of the session, D'Angelillo invited the participants to sit in on another class for free to make up for the mix-up.

Despite the technical difficulties, the spunky blond instructor was able to get a few things across. Her main objective was helping her students become "fraud-savvy." Seniors are taken in by scams at a much greater rate than other Internet users. "That's the one thing I want you to go out and teach everyone you know about," she said.

D'Angelillo passed around printouts of scam emails she'd received. "Never respond to email you didn't ask for," she instructed. "Even if it looks legitimate, wait. Never give out your credit card information ... Never follow [the links in an] email if you don't know exactly where it's from."

Still, D'Angelillo's most important advice wasn't cautionary; she told her audience to experiment with their machines. "There's very little you can do, short of dropping your computer, that will really hurt it," she told them.

She encouraged them to start behaving like teenagers. Young people, she explained, act as if they know what they're doing, even if they don't. "Why can Christine's grandnephew fix the problems on her computer?" she asked the class.

"He's not afraid of the damn thing," deadpanned Priscilla.

Though many Vermont seniors have been reluctant to enter the digital age, some, like 71-year-old Annette Zeff, have embraced it wholeheartedly. The retired Philadelphia high school teacher moved to South Burlington with her husband in 2003. They live at Allenwood at Pillsbury Manor, an assisted living community, where Zeff's husband Sid can receive care for Parkinson's Disease.

Zeff says she spends several hours a day logged onto her PC desktop, which is mounted on a massive desk in her bedroom. She sits in a comfortable chair, surrounded by four speakers, a printer, a digital camera with a printer dock, and a webcam.

Within moments of sitting down to show it all off, a dialogue box opens on her screen. She has a new message, from her oldest son. "Oh," she exclaims when she opens it, "the baby is crawling now! That's so exciting." She gets several more emails and instant messages in the 20 minutes it takes to demonstrate how she uses her equipment.

Zeff explains that all this isn't just for keeping up with her friends, three kids and four grandchildren -- she also looks up health information and book reviews, plays games and gets movies delivered through the mail from Netflix. One of her neighbors asked her recently what she needed a computer for. "Information, entertainment and communication," Zeff answered dryly. "Other than that, not a thing."

Zeff points out that Allenwood keeps a public terminal in the lobby, but says she almost never sees anyone using it. "It's a shame that people don't know this more," she says.

But Zeff admits that she's had a lot of help adjusting to the wired world -- she learned most of what she knows from her son Maury, who used to manage Yahoo Singapore's website.

Pat Hejny -- a cyber-savvy 79-year-old mother of six -- tells a similar story. Her son helped get her computer set up years ago, and helps update her website. The Williamstown resident says she now spends three to five hours a day on the computer, either writing, listening to radio web streams, or surfing the Internet.

Hejny, a two-time candidate for governor, also publishes a blog, called Pat Political. Last fall, with help from Morgan Brown, a homeless blogger she met at a Montpelier soup kitchen, she became Vermont's first gubernatorial candidate blogger. "I tell anybody who's interested that blogs are wonderful," she says. "It's a website that you yourself are able to manage."

Like Zeff, Hejny was lucky to have help navigating the net, but both women possess an innate curiosity and fearlessness that enables them to transcend difficulties with unfamiliar terms and technology. It's an attitude that Internet advocates need to study and promote if they want to get more seniors online. Because right now, when Hejny says, "I enjoy the computer. I don't quite know what I'd do without it," she's solidly in the minority.