If you could meet people anytime you wanted, would you do it? What if you could get help solving problems by clicking a button? Well, there's a tool that's good for both those things, and a whole lot more. It's the Internet. Although older adults don't use it as much as others, a growing number are getting online every day, even if they don't own a computer.
"The Internet is a great way to stay connected," says Marcie Schwarz, director of online services for SeniorNet. "People can use it to send messages, keep in touch with family, learn new things, or be entertained. Many do it without even leaving their homes. That makes it a perfect tool for people who are homebound."
SeniorNet is a nonprofit organization committed to helping older adults use technology to improve their lives. Recently, Schwarz asked members of one of SeniorNet's online communities (groups of people with shared interests) why they would recommend the Internet to someone over 60. Here are some of their answers:
"It helps you keep in touch with family and friends."
"You can get photos from other people almost instantly."
"Seniors can learn e-mail and send messages to their kids and grandkids. That will please the kids greatly."
"It's a convenient way to shop."
"You can make new friends all over the world."
"You can write your memoirs, pursue hobbies, find old friends."
If fear is holding you back
"People are often surprised how easy it is once they start using computers," says Janice L. Kirschner, C.S.W. Kirschner is assistant executive director of the Westchester County Department of Senior Programs and Services in Mount Vernon, N.Y. She oversees a program called STACK (Students Teach Adults Computer Knowledge). The program pairs older adults with high school students who show them everything from how to turn on a computer to how to search for information to how to "chat" with other people online. Other communities have similar programs.
"Some people are afraid because they've never used a computer," Kirschner says. "But the key is to find someone who'll work with you as a guide when you start. You won't break the machine. Before you know it, you'll be hooked."
Public libraries have computers you can use, Kirschner says. "Most of them offer classes or one-on-one instruction to help you get started." She also says some senior centers offer access to computers. Most community colleges have programs for older adults who want to learn about computers, too. "The important thing," she says, "is to have access to someone who can help you if you get stuck."
Schwarz says SeniorNet operates more than 240 learning centers around the country that teach people how to use computers.
To see if there is one near you, you can call 800-747-6848. Schwarz also recommends you check with libraries and community colleges for free or inexpensive classes.
"One way to get started," she says, "is at the home of a friend or family member who has access to the Internet. Ask them to show you how they use it." It isn't necessary, she adds, to know everything there is to know. "Just poke around. Click on this or that. And when you click on something useful, do it over and over again until it becomes easy."
Use caution and common sense
Some advice from SeniorNet: Be as cautious opening e-mail as you would be opening your door to strangers.
To avoid problems:
Remember: Scams are everywhere on the Web. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it is. Learn to ignore the word "free" and not to pay any attention to claims such as "You've Won ...!"
Don't buy merchandise found in pop-up ads (which "pop up" sometimes when you open a Web page) or e-mail you didn't ask for.
Don't open e-mails from people you don't know.
Don't keep your Social Security number in a computer file under any circumstances, and don't ever send it in an e-mail or post it on the Internet.
Don't give out your phone number, home address or credit card information unless the request for the information is a result of an order you've just placed and you know the site is secure.
Don't use the word "password," your birthday, your children's names, or the like as a password on the Internet.
Install programs that can protect your computer from spyware, port scanning, pop-ups, and online "viruses," and keep this protection up to date. At the minimum, you need a firewall, a virus checker, and anti-spyware.
Find help online
The following sites on the Internet provide software and information, often free, to help you keep your computer and your personal data safe:
surfthenetsafely.com. A website with important safety tips to help you protect yourself while you use the Internet.
www.seniornet.org. One of the resources offered by SeniorNet is a page that discusses privacy and identity theft.