Originally created 04/17/99

Seniors develop computer skills



ATHENS, Ga. -- Hugh Eidson's story is a familiar one: He got his first computer as a gift, began messing around with it and learning how to use it, and now he's ready to upgrade to a faster, more powerful model.

That was three years ago, when Mr. Eidson was a mere child of 79.

Now almost 82, Mr. Eidson is taking a new class offered by the Athens Community Council on Aging, aimed at teaching older people how to use personal computers and the Internet.

One of Mr. Eidson's classmates is 76; another is a young man of 73; and no one is younger than 55, the lowest age to be eligible for the course, which meets twice a week for six weeks.

Center workers weren't sure how the new classes would go over when they began last fall, but they have become a popular offering, according to the council's executive director, Kathryn Fowler. The classes are booked in advance almost to the end of the year.

"We hear a lot that older people are afraid of computers, and we thought they would be, too," said Anne Hansen, community services director for the council. "But we don't see it. You don't think about the older generation loving it, but they do."

Rebecca Yates, a reference librarian at the Athens-Clarke County Library, echoed that observation.

"Sometimes I honestly believe the older adults are really more excited and catch on faster than the younger ones," she said.

Ms. Yates teaches four to eight one-hour classes in Internet use each month at the library. Half the classes are morning, half in the evening. In the morning classes, "a good two-thirds are older persons," she said.

The Council on Aging's six-week courses began in September, funded by one of 15 nationwide grants jointly funded by Sony, Microsoft and the National Council on the Aging, Ms. Fowler said.

There would be more classes if the Council on Aging had more volunteer computer instructors, Ms. Hansen said.

James Peifer, a "self-taught nerd" according to his own description, is one of the two volunteer instructors. One strategy he uses is to find out what his students are interested in, then show how they can use the Internet to explore those interests.

Mr. Peifer, a retired University of Georgia scientist who will be 75 in two weeks, shows his students how to find old friends on the Internet, getting addresses and telephone numbers for people they haven't seen in 30 or 40 years.

"I took a lady who had never been out of Georgia and said, `Let's go to Paris,"' Mr. Peifer said. "I think it's therapeutic. It keeps them alive and alert."

One friend of Mr. Peifer's, a man in his 80s, uses his home computer to play bridge -- with partners all over the world.

"My daughter, I think she thought my brain cells were deteriorating," Mr. Eidson said, explaining why his daughter gave him a computer.

One of his main uses is e-mail, keeping contact with children and grandchildren. He's also filled his hard drive with a gigabyte of genealogical information.

E-mail can have a special advantage for older people, according to Mr. Peifer.

"Sometimes old people's handwriting gets to be bad," he said -- but that's not a problem with e-mail, where the computer forms the letters.