Golden Surfers: Older netizens on the info highway

Posted on September 2, 1999 
Filed Under CNET, Julian

By Julian Matthews

Two years ago, retired school teacher Mohamed Abu Hassan found himself in a classroom full of teenagers - only this time he was a fellow student attending computer training.

“It’s never too late to learn,” says the 64-year-old, on his first exposure to the PC. He was as eager to get online as his young course-mates, some of whom were a quarter his age.

Three months later, he was cruising the information superhighway from his home in Kampung Jana Sambungan, in Kamunting, north of Perak - the sole person in his village plugged into the Internet.

“Sometimes, I would be at it all day and night,” says the spry pensioner. Much to his wife’s dismay. “She didn’t mind that I spent RM3,000 (US$790) on the PC, but when the phone bills went up, she wasn’t happy at all,” he guffaws.

Mohamed Abu HassanCriticism by a visitor to his first homepage got him fired up to pore through source-codes to learn HTML through trial and error. “I used to get headaches from staring at the screen so long and once got so sick that I needed medical treatment,” he recalled.

But the “addiction” had its rewards. His improved homepage has since garnered him no less than 35 awards for website design. “I am grateful to a number of cyberpals I met along the way, who helped with pointers and advice,” he says, noting that all of them are much younger than he.

A collection of personal beliefs, philosophy and poetry, his homepage sports the banner “oldest Malaysian webmaster” a title bestowed upon him by a fan.

Although he still considers his site amateurish, the compliments from visitors and awards have encouraged him in the pursuit of online fame - even his initially-skeptical wife has been won over.

The age gap blurs on the Internet

Mohamed is among a growing population of senior netizens who have taken the technological plunge. The common currency they have with younger counterparts is the luxury of time, and their motivations are not too dissimilar.

“Curiosity; to stay in touch with family and friends; to remain engaged with the world” are reasons cited by Laura Fay, Assistant Director of Development and Public Relations at SeniorNet, a US-based non-profit organization that teaches computer-use to adults age 50 and older. “”What they do online is also similar. They exchange email, research particular topics and play games - although the games they play are different than younger folks,” she says.

The similarities between the generations far outweigh the differences. “Certainly, on SeniorNet’s site the contributors are more courteous and get to know each other more personally than at sites geared toward teenagers, but debates still get heated and flames have, on occasion, been exchanged,” says Fay.

Established in 1986, SeniorNet has over 160 volunteer-run Learning Centers throughout the US, providing computer training for older adults. It also sustains online communities with hundreds of discussion groups in which older adults can collaborate and support one another and share their wisdom with younger generations.

“Older people have lifetimes of experience to contribute, and first-hand accounts of the major events of the 20th century, their online voice is terribly important, ” she says, citing SeniorNet’s World War II Living Memorial as an example. The Internet has also been a powerful medium to overcome distance and disability, and has become a window to the world for the house-bound.

Fay cites one contributor on SeniorNet’s writers’ discussion who is deaf and confined to a wheel chair. “The Internet has made it possible for her to connect to other people and to share her passion for writing. The encouragement she received has made it possible for her to publish her work, something which probably would not have happened without this medium.”

Fay estimates there are about 20 million adults over 50 on the Internet in the US accounting for about 20% of the online population.

Keeping up with the youngsters

One of the greatest motivators for older people to become computer-literate is to keep pace with their children and grandchildren.

Dr RugminiDr Rugmini Chandran, 61, took the cyber plunge on the insistence of her two daughters, who were both studying in India. Rising phone charges and collect-calls from India were also a prime motivator.

By her own diagnosis, the doctor is technophobic and shys away from manipulating anything mechanical, be it the VCR or microwave. “I never used a computer. The prospect of having to do so was scary. I remember my first time, the cursor kept moving all over the place and I couldn’t control the mouse,” she says on purchasing a Pentium multimedia PC.

Close family friends coached her on weekends for about a month and she also solicited help from more Net-savvy relatives and friends. Soon she was sending email and surfing like a pro. “My two daughters in India write to me almost daily now and my husband and I look forward to their emails. They’re a bit disappointed about my brief replies, though, on account of my slow typing,” says Dr Rugmini, who runs her own clinic in the small town of Kuala Kangsar.

She recalls a recent late night phone call from her daughter in India desperately requesting a recipe for a special dish to celebrate Onam, a Hindu festival, and insisting mum email it immediately. “It was daunting to type, but somehow I managed,” she says, delighting in the ability to still play mother despite the distance.

Dr Rugmini, who migrated to Malaysia in the early 70s, also emails friends and relatives in Bahrain, Singapore and various parts of India. Her eyes sparkle at the wealth of information the Internet has opened - particularly on her home state of Kerala, sites in the Malayalam language, letting her listen to her native music, and follow the political scene there.

Barely three months into her online adventure, Dr Rugmini has been transformed into a technology aficionado and is tempted to get a PC for her clinic, buy a scanner to send pictures, and perhaps dabble with chat programs.

Retired avionics instructor Ron Whiting, 71, marvels at the tremendous progress PCs have made in recent years, recalling his first exposure to a Sinclair ZX 81. “It had 1Kb memory and you had to look at the black and white screen after every keypress to check whether a character had been typed,” he says.

In the last six years of using computers, Whiting has taken the upgrade path from a 286 to 386, 486 and finally a Pentium, and progressed from electronic bulletin boards to the Internet.

Despite espousing the hardware, Whiting has misgivings on the current software and believes it will put off older folk from taking the plunge. “It is not sufficiently user-friendly or intuitive,” he says cursing a recent Win 95 to Win 98 upgrade that messed up his email.

The Internet, however, has been a god-send in maintaining contact with his three children in Britain and renewing a 25-year-old friendship with a radio amateur enthusiast in Scotland. It has also enabled him to explore his interests in military aircraft technology and war stories.

Feeling like a youngster

Patrick TanPatrick Tan, 54, felt “like a kid let loose in an amusement park” when he first got online two years ago. “It was an adrenalin rush. The first hour I went everywhere and, really - nowhere. I just clicked my poor, over-worked mouse on anything that was clickable,” he says.

Once he got the hang of it, the retired accountant even stopped subscribing to newspapers and costly foreign magazines altogether. “I also went through a phase of signing up for a whole lot of online publications, downloading them and reading them offline, but eventually that became tedious and I am now more selective.”

Tan’s net excursions enabled him to chat with both his daughters, then studying in Australia, through ICQ. Using a digital camera, he would sometimes send pictures of their hometown, Ipoh. “I would taunt them with mouth-watering pictures of their mum’s cooking. This really made them home-sick!”

A do-it-yourself enthusiast, Tan enjoys downloading and experimenting with a variety of freeware, shareware and utility programs. This has taken its toll on his trusty PC and resulted in crashes and frequent trips to his neighborhood computer shop. “It is the ‘f’ word at the computer shop - to Format my hard disk, that is,” he grins.

The former accountant has also dabbled with genealogy software - a particular interest of older Netizens - and took pains to trace and a build a family tree, beginning with his great grandfather who migrated here from China.

He pestered relatives for the data - a particularly difficult task because of the dispersion, memory losses and attempts to match dates on the Chinese and Gregorian calendars. Tan eventually came up with a list spanning six generations, which he printed out for his family. “It was six feet long, and I printed about 30 copies until my printer ran out of ink. But I felt it was an important documentation to do before I die. I never would have done it without a PC,” he says.

The Internet also helps in researching health issues. Tan remembers the recent loss of a friend to lung cancer and hepatitis at the age of 49. “I searched for information on the ailments, and printed out possible cures and treatments for him,” he relates.

Tan equates the Net to a giant library and believes he has only scratched the surface. “If you locked me up in a dungeon, I’d still be sane if I had Internet access - better still if it was on an ISDN line,” his eyes gleaming at the thought. “With the Net, no one can ever be lonely anymore,” he concludes.

Tan’s advice to his peers is not to fear taking the technology hurdle. “You have nothing to prove to anybody but yourself, so don’t be afraid to ask and learn,” he says.

The need to recruit more golden surfers

Despite the value older Netizens may bring to Net, the local industry has yet to offer discounted PCs or access to older citizens, or to replicate SeniorNet-type programs here.

Prof Dr Tan Poo Chang thinks it may due to the lingering belief that they are not a significant part of the online population.

“The Net is the only place which has no race, age and sex bias for social interaction and communication. If older persons are given opportunities to access technology and Internet, they will be able to remain within mainstream society,” says Dr Tan, who advocates computer-literacy regardless of age.

“On average, a person aged 50 years has at least another 20 or 30 years to go before passing on. Why should a third of our lives not be enriched by getting on the Net?”

In 1996, Universiti Malaya lecturer Dr Tan pioneered the Petaling Jaya Community Center, near Kuala Lumpur, a research project for older persons, and is planning a computer-literacy class for members.

More people will live to a ripe old age as mortality rates continue to decline. It is significant that the United Nations has designated 1999 the International Year Of Older Persons. By next year, about 1.4 million citizens or 6.5 percent of Malaysia’s 22 million population will be aged 60 or over. By 2020 that percentage will rise to 10.8 percent or 3.2 million people.

By 2020, the UN estimates over half of the one billion people aged 60 and above in the world will be Asian. Technology may play a crucial role in integrating the older person into society.

“Technology will have a tremendous impact on the lives of older persons. Given the opportunity, they will be able to enjoy the knowledge and social network only possible from Internet,” says Dr Tan.

As fewer people qualify for pension funds or have enough savings or insurance to maintain a decent standard of living in the future, the Net may be the lifeline that replaces formal social safety nets. Better then to make hay, in readiness, than get gray while the sun shines.

Published in CNet Asia, Sept 02, 1999: Pg 1 | Pg 2 | Pg 3 | Pg 4 | Pg 5

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