On a morning when subzero temperatures closed schools around the metro area, every seat in the Senior Surf Day class at the Columbia Heights library was taken.
Not a surprise, though, said adult services librarian Barb Kondrick. "It always fills up," she said. "There's always a waiting list."
Chee Moua, of the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging, led the class. After passing out stacks of informational material and a classroom guide, she announced, "We're going to be doing what we call 'mousercises.' "
She then set the students to work, and they advanced through tasks like scrolling down a screen (through sections of the "Iliad"), using drop-down menus (to select pizza toppings) and double-clicking (on sticks of dynamite to blow them up).
While those kinds of skills might seem like second nature to regular computer users, they can prove intimidating for seniors. Issues like arthritis, which one student said was a problem for him, can make clicking tricky.
"A lot of times," said Moua, "you run into people who are scared to use a mouse."
These days, more seniors than ever are online. According to 2013 data from the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans ages 65 and over use the Internet. However, the transition to becoming Internet savvy can be daunting, and among those who said they don't use the Internet, 66 percent said they would require assistance getting online.
Moua said she'll field questions on everything from where to find the "enter" button to what to do when a screen suddenly disappears — which is the kind of thing that can leave seniors rattled.
"I mess up something, and I switch it to 'off,' " said Vishnu Isreepersaud, of Blaine.
One of the key aims of the class is simply getting students familiar with computers and all of their quirks, Moua said
While students often arrive with a bit of experience, Moua still has classes in which nobody has ever been online.
Elton Carlson, of Columbia Heights, said he has a computer that he uses on a limited basis. "I can monkey at home," he said, "but I don't know what all this stuff is. I don't do all the fancy stuff."
"When I wake up at night and can't go back to sleep," he said, "I go play solitaire on it."
Carlson said his wife, who passed away recently, used to play solitaire and he picked up the habit from her.
He signed up for the class to get more acquainted with the computer. He said he has some cousins in Illinois who have been hounding him to be in touch over Skype.
Stephen Weselenak, of Minneapolis, said he also has a computer at home but never uses it, though his grandchildren do, plenty.
"All they do is gossip on it," he said.
This fact actually inspired him to take the class. "[I've] got to see what they're doing on it," he said.
Some people take the class because they hesitate to ask for help from family members. "Most seniors have been self-sufficient all their lives and want to have those tools," said Kondrick.
"I hate asking my 8-year-old grandson for help," said Joe Berzak, of Columbia Heights — although he does dial up the youngster when his wife has technology questions he can't answer.
"They're so fast," said Isreepersaud, of his own grandkids.
"We're just in the wrong age bracket," Carlson said. "The kids know everything."
Berzak said another reason he signed up for the class is that he's brought his desktop in several times to get debugged. "I had almost a thousand viruses," he said.
Teaching the class
During the class, Moua gives students tips about ways to steer clear of certain Internet hazards.
"You want to be careful with what you click on," she said, suggesting they avoid pop-ups claiming they have won prizes and other sketchy pages that appear.
Moua also guides users to health care sites and sites devoted to seniors, and she likes to end the class with an activity such as having students search for their houses online.
The Columbia Heights library has only five computers available for Senior Surf Day, but Kondrick said that with a new library about to be built — ground will be broken this fall — that may change.
"We'd like to have more computers than we have now," echoed Renee Dougherty, library director.
Still, Kondrick actually counts the small size of the classes as an asset. "It's kind of a nice-sized group," she said.
Kondrick said they have been doing the classes for about a year at the Columbia Heights location. After working for libraries in Hennepin County, where they have been holding similar classes for years, Kondrick said she urged them to start doing the same.
"There's a lot of seniors who didn't grow up with computers," she said. "I think they kind of feel left behind."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.