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The ability to stay in touch with the people we love doesn't have to be a casualty of growing older, thanks to the Internet.
A Pew Research Center study in June found that for the first time, more than half of adults ages 65 and older are online. Most of them - 70 percent - go online daily.
Those over 75, what the study calls the "G.I. Generation," use the Internet much less frequently. But as we know all too well, time marches on. As 50-year-olds become 60, then 70, they bring along with them their comfort with the digital world, and their
reliance upon it.
Keith Ripley, 77, is a local computer tutor who has had a partnership with the East Lyme Senior Center for the last 15 years. Once a month, he provides three one-hour tutoring
sessions for seniors there.
In a phone interview from his Norwich home, Ripley said he's seen a lot of change among his contemporaries over those years. When he first began, the typical way an older person got a computer was when a son or daughter decided to get a new one.
"Their computer didn't have the capacity to keep up with their needs, so they would pass it on to their parents and they'd go out and buy a new computer," he said. But the old one was too slow or too small to keep up with the quickly emerging technology, so the recipient quickly became frustrated.
"Now seniors are buying their own computers," Ripley said. "And now it's their contemporaries that are encouraging them."
"Fifteen years ago, to buy a satisfactory computer cost from $700 to $1,000," he said. "Now you can buy a laptop for $300 and it will do wonders."
And nowadays, most of his students already have been exposed to computers, usually in the workplace. Even if it was using a workstation with the applications and presets already worked out, he said, that exposure helps with their confidence, and sometimes confidence is
really what it's all about.
"The possibilities on the computer are so great. It's kind of scary," he said. "I give them some techniques. I
convince them that they're not going to do anything damaging to the computer."
For the last six years, information technology consultant Michael Drurey, 49, of Hopkinton, R.I., has spent an hour each on Tuesdays and Thursdays at StoneRidge in Mystic, answering residents' questions about their home equipment.
The senior community offers several levels of service - from independent living through long term care - as well as a business lab with eight computers for residents to use.
They bring their Macs, their PCS, their laptops and iPads, their e-readers and digital cameras, even their sewing machines to Drurey, and he helps them figure things out.
When he first began at StoneRidge, he said in a recent phone interview, "I was surprised how many people were interested in the Internet. But now, the availability of these services is something they consider when they move into one of these facilities. It's something they're excited about," particularly when it comes to downloading photos.
"It's amazing to see how delighted a resident is when they get a picture or video of their great-great-grandchildren that they never get a chance to see," he said. "You wouldn't believe how enthusiastic they are. It's just like Christmas."
And then there's Skype, the software application for making free or inexpensive voice or video calls over the Internet.
"Skype is huge," Drurey said. "It allows them to bypass any fees and get to see and talk to family members and friends that are far away. They can see great-great-grandkids in places that are unreachable to them."
Although email is really what drives the digital communication growth among seniors, social media is gaining ground. The Pew study found that from April 2009 to May 2011, the use of social networking sites - such as Facebook, Linked In and Good Reads - among those age 65 and older grew 150 percent, from 13 percent in 2009 to 34 percent this year.
At the East Lyme Senior Center, director Cathy Wilson has seen that trend firsthand. In response, she teamed up with staff at East Lyme High School earlier this year to offer a Facebook class for seniors from the center.
High school media specialist Dr. Marie Shaw was one of the instructors.
"Seniors are becoming more savvy with technology," Shaw said over the phone recently. "Every person who came had some entry level knowledge of Facebook."
"There seemed to be a consensus that their children and grandchildren were on Facebook, and they didn't want to fall behind," added Robyn McKenney, the district's technology coordinator who co-taught with Shaw. "They wanted to be able to move forward with them."
"It's the way so many people keep in touch," McKenney said.
For Diane Birmingham of Pawcatuck, who is recovering from major surgery in June, that has been Facebook's main purpose. "Keeping in touch with the outside world when you can't get out into that world is extremely important to me," she said.
Birmingham, a Facebook veteran who joined in 2004, said she likes it particularly for the photographs. "I'm always trolling for pictures of my grandchildren and for pictures of my friends'
children and grandchildren," the 61-year-old said. "I like that part of being able to do that generational thing.
I'm shocked at how many of my friends' children have friended me."
Before Facebook, she said, she might have had chance encounters with them, at a funeral perhaps or at the grocery store. But "now I can see them on a regular basis."
She described one Facebook relationship with a longtime friend.
"Our mothers were dear friends and they played Scrabble all the time. Now we are playing the same Scrabble (on Facebook) that our mothers played, and here I am in Connecticut and she's outside of Sacramento (California). I can connect with her, not just with email - which is great - but to be able to interact with her - it's phenomenal."
Having joined just six months ago, Stuart McCormack of Westerly is a relative newcomer to Facebook.
"I guess I came into these modern things late," the 63-year-old said. "I had a computer years ago, but it got old and broke down and I just never did anything about it."
Then his daughter became a prolific Facebook user, posting photos and status updates about her three children, and McCormack, a woodworker at Zuckerman Harpsichord in Stonington, got tired of missing out.
"Somebody would say to me, 'Did you see that
picture of Rowan (his granddaughter) on Facebook. It's so great.' And I'd say, 'Yeah, I didn't see it.'"
So "I got a laptop and Harry (his son) came over and spent some time and showed me how to work it."
One of his favorite Facebook activities is posting old family photos.
After his mother died almost two years ago, "We found about 30 photo albums. She had cleaned out her mother's house and her father's mother's house and when she retired, she put all the photos into albums, and she tagged them and identified people."
"I like to share that stuff with my cousins (on Facebook)," McCormack said. "I like to research the occasion for the photograph and make a little, one-paragraph story to go with it."
"It's kind of like a community with all kinds of people," he said. "I don't know. I like Facebook. It's cool."