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Closing the digital divide by helping seniors get online

January 13, 2014 at 6:25 PM EST
It's estimated that about half of Americans over the age of 65 use the Internet. But for the other half, increasing societal dependence on digital technology threatens to leave behind those who don't go online. NewsHour correspondent Mary Jo Brooks reports on efforts to teach elders how to stay connected through computers.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Going online to work, shop, or check in with loved ones is now just a part of daily life.

But, for some senior citizens, the World Wide Web is a maze they are yet to navigate.

The NewsHour’s Mary Jo Brooks reports on a program trying to change that.

WOMAN: Do you remember how to get into your e-mail?

MARY JO BROOKS: At 76 years of age, Bing Fajardo is trying to become Internet-savvy.

BING FAJARDO, senior sitizen: I’m still groping. But I’m getting to know it a more, but it will take a little time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Although Fajardo worked with computers as a secretary for many years, using the Internet is a completely new experience. She would like to become more adept, so she could stay in touch with family members in the Philippines and with her daughter in Switzerland, who wonders why her mother doesn’t answer e-mails.

BING FAJARDO: She says, you mean you haven’t opened my e-mail yet?

(LAUGHTER)

MARY JO BROOKS: And what prevents you from opening it?

BING FAJARDO: I get frustrated opening this because it takes time.

MARY JO BROOKS: Fajardo hopes that frustration will lessen now that she’s taking an Internet class sponsored by the St. Barnabas Senior Center in Los Angeles.

The center, which for more than five decades has provided seniors with a broad variety of services, including exercise classes, hot meals and medical checkups, now has added computer and Internet training to its roster of offerings.

WOMAN: Today, we’re here for Facebook one, the starter kit.

MARY JO BROOKS: The day we visited, there was a class about how to use Facebook, the popular social networking site.

WOMAN: So these would be the people who were trying to contact me?

MARY JO BROOKS: About 15 seniors listened intently as instructors walked them step-by-step through the process of how to set up an account, look for friends and open up attachments and links.

MAN: You click it.

MARY JO BROOKS: Instructor Andres Gonzalez says, often, his elderly students need even more basic instructions, like how to use a mouse and keyboard.

ANDRES GONZALEZ, St. Barnabas Senior Center: There’s a fear of touching it, of being in the room with it. So what we do in the first class with them, we do an introduction class. We go over the equipment itself, what is everything used for. We go over, how do you touch it? Unless you’re banging it, you’re not going to break it.

MARY JO BROOKS: But helping seniors overcome this digital divide is a daunting task. The Pew Research Center estimates that only about half of all Americans over the age of 65 use the Internet.

That number is certainly up from the year 2000, when just 13 percent were online. But, still, with more and more information being offered digitally, from banking statements to government forms and medical records, seniors who don’t use the Internet will be left behind.

Rigo Saborio, the director at St. Barnabas, says getting seniors digitally connected is vital for their long-term health and well-being.

RIGO SABORIO, St. Barnabas Senior Center: It’s really about moving through that gateway to allowing you to open up your horizons to be able to access the various services and information that is available to people to really make a difference in their lives, to truly transform who they are.

It’s going to have a profound impact on health, mental health, physical health, and financial health. So, I think it’s very critical that we do what we can to enable people to have greater access to health, financial, emotional information through the computer system.

MARY JO BROOKS: One of the great barriers for many seniors is, of course, the cost. That’s one reason St. Barnabas established a cyber cafe, where, for a small monthly fee, seniors get unlimited use of the computers, the Wi-Fi and one-on-one help with technical questions.

The center is now working to raise money to buy laptops and tablets to lend people who can’t afford them. St. Barnabas is also expanding its mobile technology program, setting up laptops, mobile hot spots and offering classes to homebound people in low-income and retirement communities.

RIGO SABORIO: We feel like there’s a sense of freedom and opportunity in that process. When they’re able to use e-mail and all of a sudden they’re actually communicating with a friend or a loved one far away, and a big smile. It just brightens your day. And then you know you’re making a difference.

PHILIP WHITE, senior citizen: I like to see friends of mine that I haven’t physically seen in a couple of years

MARY JO BROOKS: That’s certainly been the case for 78-year-old Philip White. He says he was initially slow to embrace certain kinds of social media on the computer. But he now regularly comes to the cyber cafe to check in on Facebook and use Skype to make video calls with friends around the world.

PHILIP WHITE: A friend called me from New Jersey, and we were chatting away. And I took up pictures of my brother at a gig that he did and my kids and my dad, and talking about my family with him. And it was great. You just put them up there and chat about whatever it is.

MARY JO BROOKS: And that’s one of the encouraging things about computer use and the elderly. Once they are exposed to the Internet, they do use it.

According to that same Pew study, 70 percent of seniors who have Internet access use it on a daily basis. The number using social networking sites has increased 150 percent over the last two years, with 45 percent of senior Internet users saying they use Facebook.