Easing into the digital age

Classes instruct technologically tenuous seniors in the ways of computers
Thursday, January 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:30 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Doug Elley, 57, still prefers a stove over the microwave.

How about cell phones?

“I haven’t got there yet,” he said.

But ask him about the blue, bubble-shaped iMac computer that’s sitting on his kitchen table.

“I think it’s kinda cute,” said Elley, an environmental specialist at the Department of Natural Resources. “Something out of ‘E.T. phone home.’ ”

Intrigued by the promise of having a home-based digital photo and art studio, Elley recently bought a used iMac, his first computer, on a whim from a guy he was talking to in a bar. Then he went to a computer class sponsored by the Columbia Public Library to help familiarize him with his new purchase.

“I’m at the bottom 5 percent compared to the younger people I work with,” Elley said, “When I was in college, we were using punch cards to put data in computers.”

Palm Pilots, cell phones, digital cameras, VCRs and the Internet have evolved to help people stay entertained, be more productive and communicate easier. But a generation brought up on typewriters and party phone lines has had a difficult time adapting to the new gadgets.

Kay Smither, a 68-year-old grandmother, had her own computer, but ended up giving it away after her grandson spent two months with her and “screwed it up.”

“Every time I pushed a button, the screen said ‘Hi, Grandma, Hi Grandma’ — it kept doing that, “ Smither said.

Smither never bothered to get it fixed. Instead she gave the computer to a church.

“I wish I knew how not to be afraid of the computer,” she said, “If something goes wrong on the screen, I’m petrified.”

Jenny McDonald, a public relations associate who teaches the basic Mac skills class at the Daniel Boone Regional Library, notes that many of her older students come in seeking to solve similar problems caused by family members who fiddle with the settings on the computer.

Many baby boomers and seniors have tenuous computer skills, and if any little thing changes they’re lost and anxious.

The library offers several free computer classes, which generally attract an older generation.

The classes give them a solid foundation and understanding in computer basics.

McDonald there are two groups among the older population — those who are at some stage of computer savvy and those who are not involved with computers at all. She suspects that there are lots of people who don’t want computers in their lives at all.

“I get the sense that there are some people that have been sort of pushed into using a computer and that they would have been perfectly fine without it,” McDonald said.

Penny Buddy, a 78-year-old grandmother and resident of Terrace Retirement Community, also is not afraid to tackle the new technology.

“When my granddaughter was in second grade, she made Christmas cards on the computer,” Buddy said, “If she could do it, I could do it.”

Now on her fifth computer, Buddy does her accounting, meets people from other countries, plays games and, most importantly, exchanges e-mail with her grandchildren almost every month.

Before the computer, she hardly heard from them at all.

Tiger Columns, a retirement community in downtown Columbia, also helped its residents get connected to the Internet by installing WebTV on the fitness room television and organizing volunteers to help the seniors learn the Internet.

Barb Devine, a former activity director at Tiger Columns and Internet master volunteer through the MU extension program, tutored some of the seniors.

“Many are overwhelmed with the complexity,” Devine said, “But if we could open the mystique of computers to the older generation, it would open a whole new world.”

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