Seniors invade cyberspace

October 21, 2004, vol. 31, no. 4
By Marianne Meadahl

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By the year's end, Lillian Newman hopes to be halfway through her third university degree. To get there, the 80-year-old SFU English major will keep a hand on her books, and a foot in cyberspace.

Newman is among a rising number of seniors using the internet. Last spring a U.S. study found that seniors' use of the internet has jumped by 47 per cent since 2000, making them the fastest growing group to embrace the online world.

Despite an initial learning curve, Newman now routinely accesses the internet, and not just for her studies.

Since she's learned the virtual ropes, she uses the internet for genealogical studies to research her British family tree, or “just to satisfy my curiosity about a person, or an article I've read,” she says. “I rarely put pen to paper now, preferring to keep in touch with friends and family by email.”

Richard Smith, an associate professor in SFU's school of communication, says once they embrace it, seniors love the internet. “In many ways, once they get over the interface and technical problems, the internet is a natural for people over 65,” says Smith, adding that his own parents, in their 70s, “are having a wonderful time” in cyberspace. “Their children and grandchildren no longer find the phone the easiest way to communicate. They've moved to email and would like to bring their parents along with them. Many people are keen and able to set their parents up with computers and show them the ropes. Once they have it, they don't look back.”

Smith says the advent of digital photography is making computer ownership, and access to the internet, “almost a requirement of being a grandparent.” He says older people have more time, are interested in things that are much better tracked on a computer (such as genealogy) and can take charge of their health care by the wealth of information at their fingertips.

Back at school, Newman says she bought her computer the day after struggling with a typewriter through her first university essay. “I must admit that it was the smartest purchase I ever made. Over time I have become quite computer literate and I love doing research.”

Newman, the membership chair of SFU Opsimaths and the university's Association of Life-Long Learners, uses her computer to maintain membership records. “Occasionally, if I'm put on hold while on the phone, I even play computer solitaire,” she admits.

The 2004 U.S. study on seniors' internet use was done by the Pew Internet and American Life Project based in Washington. Smith says previous studies in the U.S. and by Statistics Canada show seniors' use has been rising since about 1999.

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