November 14, 2011

USA: Online in the golden years

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama / The Birmingham News / November 13, 2011

Birmingham seniors plugging in to Net

By Val Walton--The Birmingham News

Betty Goodykootnz emails and surfs the World Wide Web. The 101-year-old former teacher also has a Facebook account but found "there were too many faces," so she doesn't use it.

Now, she's taken her computer skills to another level. She recently created a blog.

"I write it once a week, on a Sunday," Goodykootnz said. "I comment on what I am enjoying, doing or the things I find particularly interesting."

Goodykootnz and some of her fellow residents at Kirkwood By The River, an independent and assisted living facility in Irondale, are computer savvy seniors, hip to the intricacies of the Internet and social media. They are part of a growing trend of adults over 65 who are logging onto the Internet to be more involved in the lives of their loved ones and to stay current with a high-tech world.

Residents at Fair Haven in Birmingham, Alabama, are shown in a computer class on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011. The lessons are part of a UAB study on seniors using social media. L-r- Annabeth Carter gets help from Vicki Winstead. Beverly Taylor / The Birmingham News

Will Hunt, a 83-year-old Kirkwood resident, has a Facebook account and an email address. He likes to know the latest happenings with his granddaughters who live in South Carolina and California.

"It's instant communication," Hunt said.

According to a recent study by Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, older Internet users have the fastest growth in social network usage in the past two years. Thirteen percent of Internet users ages 65 and older used a social networking site in April 2009. By May of this year, that figure had grown to 33 percent.

Kathyrn Zickuhr, a Pew research specialist, said 25 percent of Internet users in the oldest generations of Americans, those born before 1936, use social network sites. This is up from the 16 percent in May 2010 and 4 percent in December 2008.

Sociology experts said the trend is understandable. Social networking and the Internet can be powerful forces in helping seniors, many of whom have grandchildren growing up in the digital age, not to be left out of the communication loop.

Shelia Cotten, a University of Alabama at Birmingham sociology professor, has been studying the impact that the Internet and social networking sites have on older adults in assisted and independent living facilities since 2009, looking at their quality of life.

Cotten said she has seen and heard social benefits and enthusiasm from participants as they reconnect with lost social circles.

"People will say things in our focus groups and interviews like, 'I feel the world is not passing me by anymore,'" Cotten said. "One participant said, 'I feel like I'm further from the grave.' Every time I repeat it, it sends chills down my spine."

Cotten said for a lot of residents in assisted living facilities, their friends have died, their family may not live as close to visit often, and they have moved from their communities where they knew people all their lives. Using email and social networking sites such as Facebook helps them to not feel isolated.

"This is a way to connect them with their social networks so they can be in contact with their kids and grandkids," Cotten said.

Cotten said an analysis to be published in Computers In Human Behaviors has shown that Internet use reduces depression by 20 to 28 percent among older adults who are retired.

Cotten and a team of UAB graduate students have been conducting eight-week computer training courses for residents in independent and assisted living facilities in greater Birmingham. Goodykootnz and Hunt were among Kirkwood residents who participated.

"They took us from ground zero," Hunt said.

In the classes, residents learn everything from turning on a computer, handling a mouse to eventually surfing the Web and using email. Some are introduced to Facebook, Twitter and Eons, the online community for the Boomer generation. Most of the participants are in their 80s or 90s.

Helen Frye and Rosemary Oddo, both 80, checked their email on a recent Thursday at FairHaven, a retirement community off Montclair Road in Birmingham.

Frye used a large keyboard and computer mouse plugged into the laptop computer before her on a table. She used the fingers on one hand to peck the keys. She was proud of her progress with the computer.

Before taking the UAB class, Frye said, "I didn't know how to turn one on or turn one off."

She now keeps in touch with her daughter who lives in New York by email. "It's just wonderful," she said.

Across the Birmingham-Hoover metro area, senior centers now offer computer classes teaching older adults how to engage the Internet.

The Jefferson County Office of Senior Center Services conducts classes known as Generations on Line, which gives step-by-step lessons on the Internet for seniors, creating easy-to-use services such as email and Web surfing. The seniors can send email in the appearance of postcards.

Julyan Carter taught computer basics to people ages 75 to 80 at the Hoover Senior Center on a recent Tuesday through Generations on Line. In the program, the seniors are taught by peers. At the center, the clicking of computer keys filled the air.

"They are so happy when they learn how to send emails," Carter said. "They love to go on the Internet and look up material for hobbies."

Cotten, the UAB professor, found that senior residents enjoy going to sites to check out their old neighborhood and clicking on YouTube to watch classic movies they still enjoy.

For Goodykootnz, she finds joy in just writing on her blog, which she named "Betty's Blog. Betty's Bits of Babble."

"I don't know if others will find it interesting, but I'm having fun doing it," she said.

Val Walton 

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