It's never too late to learn

  • Article by: KATY READ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2012 - 9:14 AM

As everything goes digital, seniors lacking computer skills are missing out.

Lorraine Kenfield looks up after checking emails on her computer. When her husband died, she knew so little about the computer where their important information was stored that she literally did not know how to turn it on.

Photo: Joey McLeister, Special to the Star Tribune

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For years, Lorraine Kenfield's husband urged her to learn how to use the computer, where he kept all of the couple's financial records and other important information. She figured she'd get around to it -- eventually.

Then, suddenly, he died.

"Everything I needed to know was on that computer," said Kenfield, 79, a retired psychotherapist who lives in Bloomington. "And I literally did not know how to turn it on."

She tried classes through community education programs but found they weren't basic enough. Finally, she enrolled at SeniorNet, a nonprofit organization that teaches older people computer skills, starting from the "How do I turn it on?" level. Kenfield went in "very, very frightened of the whole thing," but gradually grew proficient. She took more advanced classes, then volunteered as a coach for other students.

That was 11 years ago. Nowadays, Kenfied uses her computer for spreadsheets, for organizing and editing photos, for connecting with friends on Facebook. She relies on the internet for shopping, cultural and medical information.

"Whenever I want to know anything, I'll research it," she said. "It might be something as simple as, 'I wonder how much vitamin D I should be taking.'"

If she were a few decades younger, Kenfield's digital prowess wouldn't be unusual. But compared to most people her age, she's practically a computer geek. Fewer than half of Americans over 65 go online at all -- just 42 percent, about half the rate for the overall population -- according to a 2010 Pew Research study. Pew also found a wide gap between seniors and others when it comes to using search engines, video-sharing sites, social-networking sites, e-readers, smart phones and tablets. (Boomers between 50 and 64 are somewhere in between on most of these measures -- ahead of their elders, but not quite caught up with younger folks.)

'We have people in my condo building who know nothing about the computer," Kenfield said. "They're so out of it, they can't even get into the conversation sometimes."

Many probably see little need for it, raising a valid question: Why bother with computers if you've managed just fine for 60-plus years sending letters through the mail, banking with a live teller, shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, looking up information at the library, getting together with friends over coffee rather than keyboards?

But as more and more of society's functions move online, in some cases exclusively, experts say those who can't follow them risk being left out of the loop.

"At this point, the internet is not an optional resource; it's become a backbone of mainstream life," said Laurie Orlov, founder of Aging in Place Technology Watch, a company that provides consulting advice about seniors and technology.

The web makes it easy to find information important to seniors -- about travel, food, housing, crafts, Medicare and Social Security, volunteering ... really, just about any topic imaginable -- that would be harder, if not impossible, to get elsewhere. It offers discounted merchandise, coupons, consumer reviews and other ways to save money.

Orlov particularly worries about the 71 percent of seniors who Pew says don't seek health information online, thereby missing out on a convenient way to research diagnoses or connect with others with similar health problems.

"There's a divide now between the haves and have nots in terms of access to information," Orlov said. "Those who don't have access are dependent on others to provide it for them."

Online socializing, disparaged by doubters as replacing face-to-face interaction, is actually a great tool for older people, particularly those with mobility limitations or distant families. The internet lets people keep in touch with loved ones via email, Facebook, photo-sharing sites, video chatting. They can join "communities of interest" -- people around the country or world who share a fascination with astronomy or antique buttons or Alfred Hitchcock movies.

Admittedly, getting online is no breeze. Computers and internet service can be costly. Setting them up may require the help of an experienced friend or professional. Dexterity or vision problems can interfere with using the equipment. Then there's the challenge of stepping outside of one's comfort zone.

"People come in terrified that they're going to damage the computer in some way" (which is highly unlikely), Kenfield said. "There's a huge fear element, and a huge lack of confidence that overwhelms everything else."

But the effort itself is healthy, she said, and the benefits well worth it.

"I can't imagine not being able to use a computer for all the things we use it for today," Kenfield said. "I feel connected to the world."

Katy Read • 612-673-4583

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