chicagotribune.com >> News columnists
by Eric Zorn
Seniors' reasons for avoiding 'Net have gotten old
A typical letter or voice mail in my inbox begins something like this:
"Because I'm a senior citizen and don't know how to use a computer, I'm contacting you the old-fashioned way ..."
Or, "Why are you always telling us to leave comments on the Web? A lot of us retirees aren't online, you know ..."
Such an explanation -- or is it an excuse? -- for not being wired for the new millennium would be offensive if it came from a young person or if it were matter-of-factly applied to an ethnic or gender group.
"Because he's an old person he doesn't know how to use a computer ..." or "a lot of women aren't online, you know ..."
But we've tended to nod understandingly when gramps and gram cite their advancing years as the reason they haven't joined the digital revolution, and to gloss right over little asides such as "not everyone, especially oldsters, has a computer ..." in a letter published in Saturday's Tribune.
But not me. Not anymore.
Not when nearly 3 out of 5 people ages 65 to 69 are online, according to the most recent data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Not when 1 out of 4 people from 70 to 75 is surfing the Web, sending e-mail and posting to chat rooms.
Not when two of this regions most industrious bloggers -- radio hosts Tom Roeser (tomroeser.com) and Milt Rosenberg (miltsfile.com) -- are on the far side of 75.
Not when computers are cheaper, easier to learn and more useful than ever. Not when they have evolved from gadgets for geeks into home appliances more useful and vital than telephones or TVs. And not when there is widespread agreement among advocates for the aged that seniors have more to gain from home computers than any other demographic group.
Even basic computers today come with "accessibility technology" for those whose vision and hearing is impaired, and a bare-bones Internet connection brings the world to those who have lost some or all of their mobility. Computers are the only source for about three quarters of all federal documents including the best guide to the Medicare drug plans (medicare.gov), and the fastest, most current and most comprehensive access to medical information available anywhere.
No more of the most popular excuses:
"I'm afraid I'll break it."
That's the No. 1 reason that education consultant Tobey Dichter says seniors tell her they shy away from computers. "No. 2 is: I've lived this long without a computer, I don't need one now. And number three is: I'm too old."
Dichter, 61, is the head of Generations on Line, a Philadelphia-based non-profit agency that runs programs to get seniors online throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Surprisingly, she said cost and physical infirmities of age are not among the top reasons many elderly people avoid computers. This particular "digital divide" -- nearly 9 in 10 people in their 30s are online according to Pew data released last month -- remains stark even when researchers control for financial and health variables.
Dichter said she does not lecture seniors to get them online the way, say, a newspaper columnist might. "The first thing I ask is, What would you do if you could go to the biggest library in the world and look up anything?" she said. "Their imagination often takes them from there."
Break the computer? Not unless you shove it to the floor. Don't need one? There's almost no worldly good you need more to feed your mind and keep you healthy and socially connected. Too old to learn? Dichter has a client who's 103 who began to surf the Web when she was 99 and recovering from a stroke.
No more will I patronize my elders by giving them an implicit free pass to linger abjectly in the last century. I respect them so much that I'll take any excuse but age for why they're sending a letter by U.S. mail or leaving a telephone message.
Meanwhile, here's a final incentive: Online, you can find fault with upstarts and whippersnappers in forums that all the world can read.
Use your computer to leave comments at chicagotribune.com/changeofsubject or, if you must, write me at 435 N. Michigan Ave. Chicago 60611 or call 847-755-7984 (this phone number as published has been corrected in this text.)
Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune