Originally created 06/27/99

Volunteers to teach seniors to surf



AIKEN -- In a cramped cubbyhole turned classroom with one light switch, one door and no windows, Bruce McGrath moves his fingers to the rhythm of his teacher's voice, and listens.

He knows too much about computers already, including all the techie talk that silicon geeks gurgle during drink, eat and sleep. There's the English language, and then there's computer lingo.

Mr. McGrath knows one about as well as the other, having retired from IBM.

But there's one thing he's needs help with, and for that he turns to Joe Tartaglino, who's teaching Mr. McGrath and 25 other volunteers how to show other seniors to plug into the Internet.

Through a program called SeniorNet, soon to be offered at the University of South Carolina Aiken, older adults will learn everything from switching on a computer to making sense of their money, from tracing their family lineage to swapping recipes on the Internet.

If not for a chance hit on the Web site www.seniornet.org, Mr. McGrath may not have known about the organization and wouldn't have brought it to South Carolina.

"I was fumbling around on the Net, I clicked in the site, found it interesting, then noticed there wasn't a learning center in South Carolina," said Mr. McGrath, a confessed Internet junkie. "I called them up, asked them why they didn't have one here, and they told me to find a location."

So he did.

The organization has a membership of more than 30,000, publishes a quarterly newsletter, offers discounts on computer software and services and has more than 140

learning centers nationwide.

Once teachers are trained here, class schedules and costs will be announced.

Mr. McGrath's Internet addiction proves that the cyberrevolution has begun to recruit from among older Americans. They are going online to plan trips, manage investments, find old friends, strengthen family ties and create a sense of community at a time when they're craving it. And in the age of rapidly expanding electronic commerce, they represent a largely untapped market.

Experts differ on numbers, but most agree that people 50 and older make up the fastest-growing group online.

They number at least 8 million, or about 15 percent of the estimated 50.6 million Americans who browse the Web, according to the most recent survey by Nielsen Media Research and CommerceNet. Literally tens of thousands of Web pages have sprung up to serve older consumers.

"The Web has the potential to transform the entire experience of aging," says Hugh O'Connor, director of AARP's Research Information Center. "We're just starting to understand the implications, but it's already clear that the Internet can stimulate independent living among the elderly."

The Internet can also help combat isolation, spur lifelong learning, create opportunities for volunteering and make it easier for retirees to earn extra money without leaving home.

Many take classes at local senior centers or community colleges to learn the basics, then start with a user-friendly service such as America Online.

Other seniors like the chat rooms offered by online sites geared to them such as SeniorNet, Third Age or AgeScape.

Of course, some are still put off by the digital world's computer lingo or equipment that's hard on arthritic hands. Others are wary of flimflams. But many seniors say the Internet is a tool that is especially appealing because it's the great equalizer, making age, gender and appearance irrelevant.

"The times of retirement are changing," said Mr. Tartaglino, who runs a learning center in Boca Raton, Fla. "It's no longer about sitting on the front porch in a comfortable rocker waiting for life to pass you by. Seniors today are thirsting for knowledge and the ambiguous `www.' has then even thirstier."

Chasiti Kirkland covers education for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.