Bridging the communication gap

A 2000 study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project cites that although senior citizens comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for just 4 percent of U.S. Internet users.

In an effort to change these kinds of statistics, a slew of programs offered throughout the Seattle area have been dedicated to helping seniors gain the skills and confidence needed to conquer their computer fears. These programs, many of which were developed through city groups and nonprofit organizations, focus on teaching basic concepts during free or low-cost tutoring sessions.

Computer Pals
North Seattle senior Idie Hanna has been participating in a tutoring program at her Ida Culver House Broadview retirement community since April.

"I wanted to learn to use e-mail and to become more comfortable with word processing so that I could write letters to my friends and family," Hanna said. "Thanks to my tutors, I've pretty much conquered the basics and have learned just about everything that I set out to."

Hanna's tutors are high school volunteers and participants in the Computer Pals project, which was created in 1995 by a Lake City-based nonprofit organization called Inter-generational Innovations. The program is organized by Americorps volunteers who work with senior centers, retirement communities and elementary schools throughout the Seattle area in an effort to teach basic technology skills to seniors and schoolchildren.

"One of the most important things about this particular program is its congruency. You have two groups [seniors and young people] who have individual needs," Intergenerational Innovations executive director Kelly Phanco said. "Today's young people grow up learning to use computers in school and can help older adults learn some valuable technology skills."

The program is currently offered for North Seattle seniors through weekly and biweekly sessions at Ida Culver House Broadview and the Ballard Family Center. The tutoring groups at each organization run during six-week sessions from fall through late summer.

After senior participants learn to navigate the Internet and use e-mail, they are assigned to be Computer Pals with students at local elementary schools who communicate with the seniors via e-mail so that both groups have a chance to practice their skills.

Seniors Training Seniors
In contrast to the intergenerational focus of the Computer Pals program, Seniors Training Seniors in Computer Basics, sponsored by the Seattle Human Services Department and the Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens, seeks to familiarize older adults with computer applications taught to seniors by seniors.

The Seniors Training Seniors program is administered during two-hour training sessions led by computer-savvy seniors who use a workbook and individualized support to help participants master basic computer concepts.

Jim Evans teaches the weekly Computer Basics class as part of the Seniors Training Seniors program at the Phinney Neighborhood Association. Evans, himself a Seattle-area senior whose career has focused on technology and training people to use software applications in a business setting, has been teaching senior computer classes since December.

He has lead six sessions so far, each with an average group of about three people - all of whom seem to appreciate his expertise and non-threatening teaching style.

"A lot of people come to the classes with some initial fears that the material will be over their heads. We move slowly enough and try not to cover too much material in each session," explained Evans, whose class motto is, "There is a lot to learn, but you don't have to know it all to use the computer."

Seniors Compute
Jacque Cook, another Seattle senior and well-versed computer professional, actually developed her own program, Seniors Compute, several years ago and offers classes at community centers, including the Tallmadge Hamilton House in the University District, in addition to in-home tutoring sessions.

The Seniors Compute program focuses on teaching computer skills ranging from basic instructions about learning to turn the system on and off and using a mouse, to more advanced concepts like transferring and viewing pictures from a digital camera.

Cook instructs participants using hardware and software applications that have been specially modified with senior needs in mind. In her four-week, two-hour sessions at the Tallmadge Hamilton House, groups of about eight seniors use computers with large font and a special mouse that is easier for unsteady hands to navigate.

"Every person that has come to my training sessions has appreciated these modifications," Cook said
Her participants also attest to Cook's patience in tutoring them in a helpful and upbeat manner.

"She draws diagrams on the overhead projector and does everything she can to help us understand how to use certain applications," explained Frances DeGermain, who has attended Cook's classes off and on for the last three years. "She never makes us feel stupid."

Interested in learning more? Seattle's Department of Information and Technology provides a complete list of local programs designed for older adults. Visit on-line at for details.

Colleen Kiser works for ERA Care retirement communities. Her Senior Style column appears the last week of every month.

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