About 60 people recently filled the multi-use room at the Willow Glen Community Center in San Jose for a discussion about Gmail, Google's free e-mail service.
After an overview from Walt Cole, a computer instructor and retired IBM engineer, the attendees started firing questions. One wanted to know how Gmail worked with Google Voice, the company's Internet calling service. Another wanted to know if there was a way to sync Gmail with phone-based e-mail programs. Yet another wanted to know how to move calendar entries from Microsoft's Outlook program to Google.
The gathering was remarkable not because of the questions or the topic -- this is Silicon Valley, after all, and technology is part of the very air we breathe. What made it remarkable was that nearly everyone in the room appeared to be older than 55, and many were much older than that.
When it comes to technology, many seniors are out of the loop. A much smaller proportion of older Americans use computers or the Internet than Americans in other age groups. But as the community center gathering indicated, seniors have begun to embrace technology.
Computer use among Americans 65 and older has doubled in the past 10 years, while Internet usage among that age group has more than tripled, according to the Pew Internet Project.
Just seven years ago, most volunteers on AARP California's mailing list didn't have an e-mail address, noted Christina Clem, a spokeswoman for the
senior advocacy organization. Now the AARP has e-mail addresses for all but a few volunteers in the entire state.
The digital divide "is not as big as it used to be," Clem said.
Senior advocates and researchers say that's partly because of the aging of baby boomers who have used computers for much of their working lives. But it's also because of the pervasiveness of technology in American lives, as well as the desire of seniors to stay in touch with children and grandchildren who tend to communicate via the Internet.
"The real trick is getting them over the initial hump" of using computers, said Aaron Smith, a senior research specialist with Pew Internet. "Once they're involved, they are as active or more active than other users."
Getting over the hump
The gathering at the community center was part of a years-long effort to help San Jose seniors get over that hump and keep up with the latest tech trends. It was sponsored by the local branch of SeniorNet, a national nonprofit group that offers technology courses to seniors. For more than 12 years, the SeniorNet center in Willow Glen has supplemented its classes with User Group, a monthly meeting that focuses on technology topics of interest to members.
In addition to Gmail, User Group has recently looked at computer security, Facebook and Windows 7. Upcoming topics include blogging, online tax preparation, Adobe Photoshop Elements and smartphones. Attendees tend to change from month to month depending on the topic, say the regulars.
"These are people who are interested in what's going on," said Miles Welter, a SeniorNet teacher and longtime User Group participant.
Some in the group, like Helen Stolin, have worked in technology. She's a retired software engineer who has attended the meetings off an on since 2002. She attended a session last year on Windows 7 because she didn't have the software on her home computer and wanted to learn more about it.
"It's nice to be on the edge of technology," she said.
Others come to learn more about technology useful for hobbies they've nurtured since retiring. Tom Barashas, 59, a photography enthusiast, mainly attends meetings that relate to digital photography. User Group "has been very informative in helping me decide what to purchase," he said.
Still others use the group to acquaint themselves with websites or technology that they've heard about from family or friends, but don't know how to use. That's why Joyce Monda, 72, attended the meeting on Gmail.
"I was interested in switching," she said, adding that after learning more at the User Group meeting, "I'm not sure I want to now."
A place to meet, chat
Learning about technology is not the only reason some attend the meetings. Organizers and participants say they give seniors a chance to socialize. Indeed, some attend sessions "just to get out of the house," said Welter, adding, "A lot of seniors just like to talk to other people."
Roger Fong started the User Group in 1998 after becoming involved with SeniorNet two years earlier, after his retirement as a systems engineer at Lockheed. His aim was to supplement SeniorNet's computer classes. User Group was patterned after similar meetings he had attended while at Lockheed, where technology vendors would come to get feedback on their products from actual users. The Willow Glen User Group has met monthly, with occasional breaks, since 19
"One of the problems with (SeniorNet) was after you take a class, what do you do next?" said Fong. "How do you keep people interested? How do you keep up with the state of the art? I was hoping the User Group could be the answer."
Phil Carnahan, one of founders of San Jose's SeniorNet, said he's pleased with how User Group has turned out.
"It's a really neat thing for people," he said.
Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-920-5021. Follow him at Twitter.com/troywolv.
Where seniors can learn more about computers
Centers: Three locations; www.snlcsj.org
San Jose Public Library computer classes: www.sjpl.org/calendar?etopic=7&ewords=
Cupertino Senior Center: The computer program includes introductory, intermediate, and electronics communications classes with Apple and PC computers. www.cupertino.org/index.aspx?page=188
Avenidas classes and conferences: Offers PC and Mac classes. www.avenidas.org/activities
Free computer training: Helpful online tutorials cover: Excel, Internet, open source, Office 2000-03, life skills, Windows, and Word. Sponsored by the Goodwill Community Foundation. www.gcflearnfree.org/computers
Source: Leigh Poitinger,
Mercury News research
What's the trend for seniors: Computer use among Americans 65 and older has doubled in the past 10 years, while Internet usage among that age group has more than tripled.
What it means: Senior advocates and researchers say the increase is partly because of the aging
of baby boomers who have used computers for much of their working lives. But it's also because.
Article posted orginally posted in the San Jose Mercury News by Troy Wolverton on 2/4 /2011
of the pervasiveness of technology in American lives.