Senior years transformed by Internet

by Jerrold Bartholomew

Who says that blogging and nursing homes don’t go together?

There is a pair of stories in the news this week that contrasts different seniors’ comfort levels with the internet. The first is highlighted over at the Greatest American Lawyer, where Enrico Schaeffer posts on the death of the world’s oldest blogger:

“An Australian woman often described as the world’s oldest blogger has died at the age of 108 after posting a final message about her ailing health but how she sang “a happy song, as I do every day.”

What a treasure Olive Riley, author of The Life of Riley (be patient—the bandwidth of that blog is being put to the test) has created for her family and indeed the world. Olive Riley, survivor of two world wars and mother of three children, had a spirit to inspire us all and at least some of that spirit has been captured in her online posts. Olive Riley is remarkable for her ability to learn blogging at the age of 106 or so, but her affinity for the internet is hardly unusual among seniors, who now commonly use the internet for things like email, research, and driving directions. Olive, however, seems to stand in sharp contrast to Sen. John McCain, who has famously noted his inability to use the internet himself. Yet 71-year-old McCain appears to be unusual for his age group and an Associated Press article this week explores just how much of anomaly he is:

Only 35 percent of Americans over age 65 are online, according to data from April and May compiled by the Pew Internet Project at the Pew Research Center.

But when you account for factors like race, wealth and education, the picture changes dramatically. “About three-quarters of white, college-educated men age over 65 use the Internet,” says Susannah Fox, director of the project.

McCain’s campaign has apparently realized that their candidate is unusual among seniors and vulnerable to being depicted as out of touch. In recent comments, a new McCain is emerging who is, “fully capable of browsing the Internet and checking Web sites…He has a Mac and uses it several times a week. He’s working on becoming more familiar with the Internet.” Back-peddle, back-peddle.

Meanwhile, seniors are turning to resources like Seniornet.org, Generationsonline.com, and lifetimetolearn.com to become more familiar with the internet and computers. Seniors are using the internet to save time by making reservations and shopping online, to stay in touch with family members, and even to reach opponents to play games like scrabulous (see also scrabble) and chess. In my own family my wife and I have seen an amazing transformation of our parents in five years. Of distant memory are the days when I recall our nine-month-old son showing my father-in-law how to use a mouse. Now, he does all of his investing online and has become of maven of online financial resources, including following niche listservs and investment blogs. All four of our parents find much of their daily news, track down human interest stories, exchange email, shop, make travel arrangements, share photos, and research just about everything online. In this microcosm it is easy to see that the internet has stopped being new-fangled and intimidating and has become both a common and an essential tool for seniors.

And indeed, it is a good time to be a senior. Opportunities to reach the world, learn new things, re-connect with old friends, research family geneologies, and otherwise keep in touch are possible now that really were not available just a short time ago. All of which make aging less isolating, richer and more stimulating than ever before. It is now simple to research and compare assisted living facilities or nursing homes for quality, amenities, rates, etc.; or to find information or support groups for health problems such as Alzheimer’s; or to locate home health care options, senior travel deals, or community calendars that list local senior events. The possibilities and opportunities are almost endless.

Rest in peace, Olive Riley. Thank you for the blog and the inspiration. And congratulations to those seniors who are now online and enjoying a richer and more varied retirement with the internet.

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