Originally created 04/02/02

Teaching elderly people computer skills

BEECHVIEW, Pa. - When 84-year-old Mary Hoover designed her first greeting card on a computer, she thought long and hard about what printed message would be appropriate for the card.

Giggling like a schoolgirl, she finally settled on:

"They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. This is my new trick."

Hoover is a resident of Beechview Manor, a senior citizen high-rise. She is one of 14 senior students who are wowing their families and themselves with new computer skills, taught each week by John Shepherd, director of Duquesne University's multimedia program.

Since mid-January, Shepherd has been volunteering his time, teaching two small groups of seniors how to maneuver through the programs on three new computers that were purchased for general use at the high-rise.

"Everyone was afraid of it, afraid they would break it, afraid they would look silly," Shepherd said.

With his help, the students, all elderly or disabled, learned to make their holiday cards and take a stab at computerized Trivial Pursuit. He has brought them a long way in just a few weeks, from the time when they thought that a mouse was an animal that you catch in a trap.

"They didn't know what a cursor was," Shepherd said. "They thought it was cussing."

But now, the computer age has arrived at Beechview Manor.

"I can't wait for the Internet," said Catherine Siegert, 73, who loves her family's "shocked" reaction to her greeting cards and figures they are ready for an e-mail from grandma.

"If I can do digital TV and I can do a digital phone, I figure I can do this," she said.

It all began when Sister Suzanne Cubbison of the Ursuline Order, site manager of the 52-unit apartment building, started thinking about how buying some computers could enhance the lives of residents there.

She applied for a $6,000 grant from the Pennsylvaia Department of Community and Economic Development to buy a few computers and furniture to hold them, and to hire someone to train the residents to use them.

Looking for an instructor, Cubbison contacted Duquesne University, where she was put in touch with Shepherd. She was hoping he would recommend a student who would teach the seniors some computer basics for a fee.

Instead, Shepherd offered to do the training himself and for free.

"When I wanted to give him some money, he said, 'Buy a third computer instead.' " Cubbison said.

So she did.

Since mid-January, Shepherd has come to the high-rise twice a week to work with small groups of students whose enthusiasm seems to grow with each new skill he offers.

"I try to mix it up," he said.

The students made invitations for their recent St. Patrick's Day party and are busy making Easter cards to send to family and friends. While they learn, they all sing the praises of Shepherd for his patience and good humor.

"He is wonderful," said Jean Verbonach, 61, who has mild cerebral palsy and shocked her family when she sent them a handmade card.

"My son-in-law said (to my daughter), 'You mean your mother did that?' " said Verbonach, who now spends her spare time making greeting cards and playing solitaire.


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