The biggest difference between teaching young children and senior citizens to use computers is this: "Kids jump right in. Older adults are more stand-offish because they're afraid they'll break it."
That's according to Tom Sessions, a retired elementary school teacher who took what he learned while teaching young children to use computers and has now adapted it to teaching senior citizens.
Sessions is a volunteer instructor at one of two SeniorNet Learning Centers co-sponsored by eBay Foundation in Salt Lake County. At the Sunday Anderson Senior Center in Salt Lake City and the Midvale Senior Center in Midvale, the computer programs have become so popular that there's a waiting list.
Older Americans are playing catch-up with technology. Only 13 percent of people over 65 have Internet access, compared to 65 percent of those under age 30. Only 27 percent of those over 60 have access to computers at home or work, while some 78 percent of those under age 30 have access, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Seven baby boomers will turn 50 every minute between now and 2014. People over age 50 are much sought after by folks with products to sell because they account for 74 percent of personal financial assets, half of discretionary income, 65 percent of cruise travel, 48 percent of luxury car sales and 77 percent of prescription drug sales, according to Future Dialogue, The Intelligence Factory. And their ranks are growing. But many of them have never touched a computer, never gone online, never e-mailed a relative or friend.
But seniors who become tech-savvy find opened before them doors to entertainment, friendship and lifelong learning.
Seniors who participated in programs at county senior centers first started asking about computers nearly five years ago, according to Shauna O'Neil, director of Salt Lake County Aging Services. "What's this computer stuff my kids are talking about? Can you show me? My grandkids said if I get e-mail, they'll communicate with me more."
That's one of the things that brought LeVear and Kay Hone in to take a computer class at the Sunday Anderson center. LeVear likes to get online and e-mail his brother, but he's anxious to do more with the system. Kay wants to look at genealogical Web sites and visit online quilting resources.
Dena Stubbs was a data processor but only recently got a computer at home. "Gosh, it's the opportunity of a lifetime," she said. From Midvale, she's now a volunteer coach in the computer class — besides the instructor there is a volunteer "coach" for every two students. She's learning Quicken programs for use at home, while helping others with the programs she's already mastered.
Rose Brummett alternately smiles at and glares at her computer as she works. Also a coach in the class, she has a Windows 98 system at home and particularly enjoys visiting genealogy sites and exchanging e-mail with her two sons and six grandchildren, some of whom live in Arizona. She took her first computer class at the senior center.
Senior citizens have more to gain than any other demographic group from becoming versatile on the Internet, according to Anne Wrixon, chief executive officer of SeniorNet, which is an international nonprofit organization. It broadens their communications options and overcomes any mobility problems to bring the things that interest them right into their homes and senior centers.
The Salt Lake program is the first to integrate eBay volunteers into the Senior Learning Center system, she noted.
Learning popular programs isn't always easy for seniors. Some of the programs are fairly counterintuitive. Tod Cohen, who handles government relations for eBay, joked that Microsoft Windows, which the seniors are learning to use, is a program where "to turn it off, you have to push start."
Besides providing volunteers for the classes, eBay Foundation has donated $1 million to SeniorNet, with the goal of bringing at least a million seniors online over the next five years. They're sponsoring the opening of 10 new SeniorNet Learning Centers across the country, but including a couple of Salt Lake County centers made particular sense, they said, because eBay has a customer service center in Salt Lake City.
Classes are available for beginners and those with previous computer experience. The centers currently offer up to four classes taught simultaneously over an eight-week period, and more advanced training will begin in the fall.
For information on the class schedules, call 538-2092 for the Salt Lake City center and 566-6590 for the Midvale center.