Seniors who use computers — and those who proudly avoid them
By Dave Gathman email@example.com August 17, 2013 1:52PM
Tackling the digital era at age 83 and 79, Ron and Carol Hecht of Elgin work with a volunteer at Gail Borden Public Library to learn how to research family history and dulcimer music. | Dave Gathman/Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 19, 2013 6:08AM
ELGIN — When anthropologist Margaret Mead spoke at Illinois State University in the early 1970s, she noted that through thousands of years of human history, the young had always learned from the old. Now, in the post-Vietnam, post-Beatles era, she said, each generation was trusting only its own peers for new knowledge.
And some day, she predicted, the young would be teaching the old.
Welcome to “some day.”
Every 15-year-old now seems to grow up with an iPhone in his or her pocket. When they need to research a term paper, read the news or recreate, their first instinct is to pull out the smart phone or the iPad. But many people born two generations before them know next to nothing about computers and are glad to keep it that way — until, perhaps, a daughter or grandchild gives them one as a present.
To help people over 60 get up to speed in this digital age, Gail Borden Public Library has started a drop-in program called “Studio 60+” that meets from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.
For years Floyd Brown of Elgin hosted a WGN Radio show about finances and investing. Before a stroke put him in a rehab center a few months ago, he often spent hours each day at the computer in his home, studying the stock market’s ebbs and flows for personal profit.
But when his wife, 81-year-old Betty Brown, goes into action as The Courier-News’ veteran society columnist, she writes her accounts of each party and fundraiser and concert in longhand with a pen. Then she turns them over to Floyd to be typed up and emailed out. In fact, until a few years ago, she had someone else type up each column on an electric typewriter and handed in that typescript by hand to Courier-News editors.
The Digital Age “all came so fast and I was too old to really catch up,” Betty says. “I guess the world is passing me by.”
She says her children, circuit court judge Keith Brown and Elgin Community College staffer Diane Brown, “get everything new that comes out” technologically. “My grandchildren are very savvy too. But they don’t lean on me to get into computers, too.” However, like many seniors, she has let her husband show her how to get and receive emails.
Betty says her retro attitude about technology extends to other media. Her cellphone is a simple “dumb phone” that only makes phone calls. She reads newspapers and magazines the original way. (“I love paper. I have to be able to feel it,” she says.) And she rejoices that “they’re making vinyl records again. Our basement is full of thousands of those, 33s and 45s,” accumulated during her husband’s radio and television career.
The football fan
Gary Deihs of Elgin, a 67-year-old retired cook, also eschews computers and also has a spouse who’s more digitally literate.
“My wife Linda got a computer about 10 years ago. But I wouldn’t know how to turn it on,” Deihs said.
A fanatical Green Bay Packers fan, Deihs said he has had to adapt a bit as his fantasy football league has embraced the Digital Age. When it’s annual draft time, now he gets his nephew to set up a computer in their garage and do the communicating for him.
“Linda says the fantasy league wouldn’t know how to do it without a computer. But I say, ‘Sure. We’d just use the mail.’”
Not even Linda will get involved in Facebook, Gary says, because of horror stories they have heard about “everybody being able to read everything you’re doing.”
“I guess that one of these days, I’ll have to throw in the towel and learn about computers,” Deihs says. “But Linda says it’s just as good that I don’t, because I would get onto eBay and spend all our money.”
Ironically, Studio 60+ meets in the most youth-oriented part of Gail Borden Library’s adult department — the Studio 270 room that in afternoons and evenings is devoted to teenagers. The Studio 60+ program pairs seniors with volunteers who can answer questions about computers, iPhones, iPads and E-Readers in a relaxed atmosphere over coffee and snacks.
“The typical person who comes in here has received some device as a gift from a relative,” said Jeanette Via, who coordinates the volunteers. “Lots of people come in right after Mothers Day, Fathers Day and Christmas.”
“We hear people say all the time that ‘my children are so bright about these things.’ But often those children are not teachers,” Via said. “It’s no fun having a tool if you can’t use it.”
At one recent Studio 60+ session, 83-year-old Ron Hecht and his 79-year-old wife Carol, of Elgin, had come in with a Samsung Galaxy tablet they recently bought. They had learned the basics of it but now wanted “to find out what else we can do with this,” Carol said.
“I have used computers before,” said Carol — first on the job when she worked as a saleswoman, then when she used to organize routes and volunteers for the Elgin Cooperative Ministry’s Meals on Wheels program.
“I haven’t used them,” said Ron, whose pre-retirement career as a painter never required digital dabbling.
When someone like Ron never has done anything with a computer, it can be tough to do even such elementary things as finding the letters on a keyboard or holding a finger steady over one spot while clicking with a mouse. So Gail Borden also offers free classes in computer basics for users of all ages.
“I didn’t feel I needed computers,” said Ron. “But I began to feel I was missing out on something because so many other people would talk about them.”
The Hechts have heard friends and relatives talk about keeping track of family and friends via Facebook and Twitter. But “that’s the line I draw in the sand,” Carol said. “I don’t want everyone knowing what I’m doing 24 hours a day.”
More recently, Carol said, she has used that new tablet to research their family’s genealogy. And Ron, who has been learning how to play a stringed folk instrument called the dulcimer, was interested this day in finding sheet music to play Christian songs.
“We go to dulcimer festivals and we run into more and more people who get sheet music online,” Ron said. He showed how he had downloaded music for the old hymn “Nothing But the Blood” on their tablet.
Mother of bride
“I’m a gadget guy,” admits one of the Studio 60+ volunteers, 66-year-old Andy Lego of Elgin. In fact, he worked in information technology at Fermilab for 23 years before being laid off.
One of Lego’s clients today was 60-year-old Denise Ostrem of Elgin, who brought in the Nexus 10 tablet her family gave her last Christmas.
“I planned a trip to Ireland for me and my sisters on this tablet,” said Ostrem, who must use computers in her job as a librarian at St. Thomas More Catholic School. “But I want to find out more because I know it can do much more. I’m especially interested in an app called Evernote that someone said is good for compiling a ‘to-do’ list.”
Ostrem said she also has a desktop computer at home and has a Facebook account.
“I don’t post many things, but I use Facebook to stalk my niece and nephew, to see what they’re doing,” she joked. She used the tablet to call up a website on which her daughter, Kelly, told in words and photos how her fiance had surprised her with a scavenger hunt in Lords Park that ended with a romantic wedding proposal, when she had thought he was in California. The two were married last weekend and Denise Ostrem is using computer connections to help plan her other daughter’s coming wedding.
Though more and more people need computer skills on the job, Via said, it’s increasingly common to have to use a computer even to apply for a blue-collar job that requires no such skills after one is hired. The regular library staff can help with that, too, by both providing free use of the Gail Borden computers and offering limited advice about how to use them.
Sometimes a little advice can even save a user money. Via recalled how one man who came to Studio 60+ was sharing an Internet access account with his son. The father didn’t use his device much, but they had found that his part of the account was being billed much more than his son’s for data usage.
A Gail Borden volunteer examined the senior’s device and discovered he had signed into some online games but never signed back off from them. So the games had kept running in the background 24 hours a day, seven days a week.