Emma Aldridge, Web site manager for Age Concern, explains why older people may be interested in the Internet, and the provision her organisation is planning.... including a 'Baby Boomer" chat room.
Age Concern exists to promote the well being of all older people and to make later life a more fulfilling and enjoyable experience. Therefore Age Concern is very interested in the impact of IT on an ageing population.
We know that there are many older people who are very interested in understanding and participating in new technologies such as the Internet, the web, email, Desk Top publishing.
Their motivations may be varied, it might be a feeling of needing to keep up with their grandchildren, to stay in touch with families and friends, to keep "grey cells" ticking over, to take forward skills that have been picked up in earlier employment or just curiosity. Whatever the drivers, there are more and more older people who are signing onto courses, getting involved in local "taster" sessions and buying computers to try "things out for size" themselves at home.
So, if we are to believe there is so much interest and intent around, then where is the evidence - why do we not have older people on every seat in every high street internet cafe, and clearing the shelves of Dixons with their PC purchases?
Clearly there are many factors which are holding people back, one being cost, another being the "fear factor" - fear to try and fear of failure - the equipment failing the user, and the user failing themselves.
Age Resource is a project within Age Concern (http://www.ace.org.uk/ageres) which has started a programme to take computer taster sessions into day centres, nursing homes, residential care homes and sheltered housing units in England.
15 Age Concern organisations will be chosen to roll out the programme across England and 200 new volunteers (aged 50+) will be recruited and provided with basic computer, email and Internet training.
The trained volunteers will pay regular visits to day centres, nursing homes etc identified by the Age Concern organisation, offering the residents the chance to 'surf the net' and learn how to e-mail family and friends. This will be done using appropriate hardware - laptops, data projectors, large screens etc and will take account of the 'clients' needs in terms of possible visual impairment, mobility problems etc.
This project will provide the volunteers - active older people - with a basic knowledge of computers and the Internet and increase in confidence, offering them the chance to move on if they wish, to more in depth, certificated training, and, possibly, a return to paid employment or a greater involvement in voluntary or free time activity.
For more frail elderly people the outreach sessions are seen as stimulating and empowering, enabling them to take a much greater part in the life of their community. They will be encouraged to identify areas of particular interest to them so that appropriate web sites can be 'surfed' - which may be the desire to investigate a particular medical condition, find out more about a legal or historical matter, or simply to research their family history or look at quilting patterns from Canada or knitting patterns from the north of Scotland.
Each session will build upon the previous one so it is also hoped that new friendships will, in time, develop between volunteers and clients, combating the isolation which many frail older people experience.
Age Resource has also published a free booklet called Grasp The Nettle which provides a beginners guide to the Internet. Last copies are still available - telephone 0181 765 7610.
Age Concern is in the final stages of developing the very first Internet chat site for the over 50s - http://www.babyboomerbistro.org.uk. It will encourage discussion and debate around specific themed topics - such as hobbies, volunteering, environmental issues and topical current affairs issues as well as providing an area for people to meet each other and chat.
We do have a long way to go in this country to provide affordable access so that the Internet really can be a tool for everyone ensuring that as its use grows, it does not become divisive rather than inclusive, but I hope projects like these will improve the accessibility of this technology, confidence in using this technology and relevance of this technology to the older population.
. July 1999.