Feature about seniors and the Internet

Journalist Eric Shackle, 88, of Ettalong on the NSW Central Coast, proclaims on his website that “Life begins at 80.”

Mr Shackle has now been a journalist for seventy years and is the creator of the world’s first multi-national e-book.

He’s the oldest reporter for Ohmynews, the groundbreaking South Korean online newspaper at the forefront of citizen journalism – and he urges seniors to go online.

“You will be read by countless Internet users around the world. And it’s a great way of letting your friends and relatives know you’re still alive,” he chuckles.

Like Mr Shackle, a surprising number of Australian seniors are taking to the digital age, replacing traditional retirement pastimes like golf or bowls with online gaming, digital imaging, genealogy and blogging.

But for seniors who missed the computer revolution in the workplace, there is a digital divide that is making a computer-free existence increasingly difficult.

“Every time you read an article or watch an ad there’s a web address,” says Tony Lenn, the technical co-ordinator at the Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association (ASCCA), a not-for-profit peak body for Seniors and Technology.

“People who come to our clubs feel that if they don’t use email and the web, they are missing out.”

The seniors who do use the internet are keen and interested users, says publisher Kaye Fallick, who owns the website ‘About Seniors’ (www.aboutseniors.com.au).

“Older people get very bad press when it comes to technology. They are a fabulous audience to serve on the web, though – they are the web’s stickiest users, so they are happy to spend some time on a site.”

Mrs Fallick says that there is just no comparison between older web surfers and teens like her own sons who are looking for “instant gratification and the quick click.”

But the 2.6 million Australians aged over 65 are still the least likely group to use the internet, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Usage among adults aged between 20 and 54 averages around 45%, but usage drops to 28.6% for those aged 55-64 and then drops to less than 20% of those aged 65-74. The usage rate for Australians over 75 is around 3%.

The Senior Digital Divide is closing, however, with ABS figures showing that older people were the strongest growth group in home internet access between 1998 and 2003.

The proportion of over-55s who owned a computer and had internet access from home more than doubled, from 11% in 1998 to 23% in 2003.

“We seniors may start by dogpaddling, but it is not long before we are surfing the net with the best of them,” says Nan Bosler, who is the President of ASCCA.

She estimates that there are more than sixty member computer clubs around Australia, which have helped over 30,000 seniors learn to use a computer since 1998, with a further 20,000 seniors currently in training.

“I think seniors feel that they have to catch up, it’s almost forced on them,” says Tony Lenn.

Australian seniors were children in last century’s Depression, survived World War Two, raised families with the threat of Cold War and nuclear apocalypse hanging over their heads and watched the moon landing on TV.

Many had limited schooling. “Many of our older seniors have never been in the workforce. In their day it was inappropriate for a wife to work,” Nan Boswell points out.

Australia’s colonial history is littered with tales of explorers and settlers braving wild frontiers – a rendition of national identity at odds with today’s tech-driven world.

But some Australian seniors have grasped the new technologies with enthusiasm, becoming boundary-riders at the frontiers of the digital divide.

At 107, Olive Riley is believed to be the world’s oldest blogger. She is 12 years older than Spain’s Maria Amelia, the previous titleholder who dethroned Sweden’s Allan Lööf, 94.

Olive’s blog, http://www.allaboutolive.com.au  gets about 10,000 hits a day and is ranked 6,800th among the world’s 75 million blogs.

Olive was born in Broken Hill on 20 October 1899 when Queen Victoria was still alive, yet now she is embracing 21st-century technologies.

These days, she lives in a hostel at Woy Woy, 80km north of Sydney.

Film-maker Mike Rubbo, 69, helps Olive publish her blog. He made a documentary, “All about Olive,” that screened on the ABC in February last year. “The film had a great effect on her. It seemed to pump life into her.”

Mr Rubbo said Olive’s blog was having a major impact around the world.

“It’s inspiring others to take more interest in their own old folks, to go out and record their stories before it’s too late.”

It was journalist Eric Shackle who first had the idea for Olive’s blog, after reading about Spain’s Maria Amelia.

He proof-reads Mr Rubbo’s transcriptions of conversations with Olive and Mr Rubbo posts them.

Mr Rubbo said the blog had done a lot for him personally. “It has forced me to master the business of posting text and photos, something I thought was beyond me at almost 70.”

Mr Shackle also continues to embrace life. “My GP has just certified that I’m fit to drive my car for another year. All drivers 85 and over in NSW have to present a medical certificate before having their licences renewed.”

A grove of olive trees grows near the railway station at Broken Hill. The first crop is expected in 2010.

Olive Riley says she plans to return to her birthplace to pick the first fruit.

Ken Thomas is 79 and retired from banking about twenty years ago. After two hip replacements, he says that he’s not that keen on golf any more and fiddling around with computers is his main hobby.

These days, Mr Thomas co-ordinates over a hundred seniors in his “Ripper” group – the Retired and Interested Persons Special Interest Group, which is a sub-group of the Melbourne PC Users Group.

The Melbourne PC Users group is the world’s second-largest computer user group, with around 9,500 members, with an average age of around 60.

“A lot of the fellows are interested in the technical side of computers. You used to be able to mend your own car, these days we’re trying out Windows Vista,” Mr Thomas says.

“It’s a bit of effort to keep up with all the new technology but you do have more time for it when you’re retired.”

Despite his keen interest in computers, Mr Thomas scoffs at mobile phones. “I think they’re an expensive con,” he says, although he admits that many of his ‘Ripper’ colleagues use a mobile.

However, while older people value the security that a mobile brings, most shy away from SMS because tiny keys and little screens available are difficult to use.

In the US, retailers were taken by surprise when a simple children’s mobile, the Firefly phone (www.fireflymobile.com) with five large keys including an emergency call button became popular with the elderly.

US mobile company GreatCall quickly commissioned Samsung to create the Jitterbug mobile (www.jitterbug.com), with a big keys, a large screen and loud audio.

Meanwhile, Japanese mobile company DoCoMo has released a new Seniors mobile with audio features like ‘Slow Voice’ and ‘Clear Voice’ that adjust sound levels and speed.

Mobile phone companies in Australia have been slow on the uptake, although mobile retail giant Fone Zone now offers a Seniors Card discount.

“The whole mobile world is geared towards young people, which I think is a mistake,” says Lyn Goodall, who is the President of the Melbourne PC Users Group.

“A lot of our members use a PDA with built-in mobile and that gives them a bigger screen,” she says.

Ms Goodall says that the Group’s members, many approaching retirement age, use technology to keep in touch with society.

“As we get older, we tend to lose social connection. Our families move away, our friends die and it’s very easy to become lonely.”

Social connection came in spades for retiree Robyn Rogers, 64, who registered with ‘Friends Reunited’ (www.friendsreunited.com.au) to find an old college friend.

A former stenographer, Mrs Rogers is a switched-on senior, using the internet for online banking, shopping, trading on eBay and making travel bookings.

Technology usually holds no fear for her, she is in regular email contact with friends and family and carries a mobile phone wherever she goes.

But Mrs Rogers was astounded when she received an email last year via Friends Reunited, from a half-sister she had never met and discovered her long-estranged father and two other half-siblings.

“A lot of older people are afraid of technology, they are frightened to try new things,” she says. “But there’s nothing to fear. Through the internet, I’ve gained a whole new family.”

* Written with freelancer Fran Molloy. Published in The Age and SMH on 11 May 2007

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