Sacramento area retirees cross Internet frontier in growing numbers

Kathy Newman, 60, right, vents frustration Thursday during a computer lesson at Sacramento’s Ethel M. Hart Senior Center. Instructor David Hatter, 31, standing, offers advice as Carol Scott, 71, left, and Newman’s husband, John, 63, follow along. “I’m over my head already, just signing up for this,” says Scott.

As their first class began Thursday morning at Sacramento’s Ethel M. Hart Senior Center computer lab, three students listened carefully as the instructor introduced them to some basics.

“We’re going to learn key words,” said David Hatter, 31, as he used a laser pointer to direct their attention to his monitor, projected onto a screen in front of the class.

“This is your desktop. These are called icons. This is your background. Down here is your start button. Go ahead and feel free to click it.”

And they did, taking their first brave steps into life online.

Older people are crossing into the frontier of the Internet at increasing numbers: The biggest rise in Internet use since 2005 occurred among the 70- to 75-year-old age group, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Forty-five percent of that group is now online.

People 55 and older make up 31 percent of the country’s total adult population – and, according to the project, 24 percent of the online population.

Now retirees flock to classes taught by the public library and local senior centers. Top reason? The grandkids, for whom computer use is a way of life. Grandma and Grandpa are in touch, on task – and at a growing rate they’re on social networking sites such as Facebook.

“My cousin’s kids call me their aunt,” said Maggie Jimenez, 64, an artist who lives in Land Park and has been on Facebook for six months. “I’m in contact with them on Facebook. And my friends’ kids. I’m amazed how open some of them are.

“I have a niece coming up for a visit in a few weeks, after we started talking more and more on Facebook,” she added. “But I can’t get my husband on it. He’s more of a dinosaur in terms of computers.”

Jimenez has a distinct advantage: Before she retired, she taught middle school computer classes. She even built her own Web site, a showcase for her art, several years ago. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “My husband would come in, and I’d be sitting there like a stone trying to figure things out.”

Developing a basic comfort level with the virtual world takes a lot of time for many senior citizens, especially those who didn’t use computers on the job before they retired.

In a real way, the computer literacy gap is the 21st century version of the generation gap.

“I started learning a year ago,” said John Newman, 63, a retired Sacramento County maintenance worker enrolled in a Hart Senior Center class. “I was computer illiterate. Now I know how to turn it on. I look things up on the Internet, and I e-mail.”

“From going from zilcho, he’s really branching out,” said his wife, Kathy, 60, who’s also taking the class. “He’s been trying. He sent his first e-mail all by himself, and he was all proud.”

The Newmans want to publish an online newsletter for the historical society in the Florin area, where they live. Other seniors, said Hart Senior Center director Linda Hoschler, understand that challenging themselves to learn something new can help keep their memory sharp.

“We have someone who turned 100 last month, and he e-mails every day,” she said.

Older people grasp the fact that the Internet can make a host of routine activities – finding recipes, researching health information, making travel reservations, buying clothes and books – much easier.

“The computer is how we’re going to communicate,” said Therese Schultz, executive director of the Senior Center of Elk Grove, which offers a range of computer classes. “You can go online and check your bank statement. That’s one thing our seniors want to do. You can pay your SMUD bill.”

Online, they can find genealogical links they never dreamed of; online, they can rekindle long-dormant friendships and reconnect with faraway relatives.

“I’m over my head already, just signing up for this,” said Carol Scott, 71, a retired elementary school teacher taking a Hart Senior Center class. “But everybody said I needed to get a computer and do e-mail.”

It starts with a click.

Seniors get acquainted with Windows Vista in a Hart center computer class. People 55 and older now make up 24 percent of U.S. online users, with the biggest jump among those between 70 and 75.