Bent over a doubly magnified computer screen, 82-year-old Arnold clenched his mouse and clicked “OK” after typing his phone number into the AutoCorrect feature of his Microsoft Word document.
He returned to the blank white screen and entered a prescribed command in Times New Roman, size 18 font, and defiantly pressed “Enter.”
“Magic!” Arnold exclaimed, his mouth agape and jaw dropping rapidly, as he watched the digits of his phone number instantly fly onto the screen.
In a windowless room of Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, a group of senior citizens – both pupils and their teachers alike – gather each week to become computer savvy and catch up with their grandchildren’s high-tech agility. The classes are small, typically hosting only three or four students, according to instructors, who prefer close-knit workgroups.
“I like to be able to see the faces,” said instructor Vivian Lowell, during a Thursday beginner’s class. “I know by the expression on people’s faces whether they’re lost or not.”
At the 92nd Street Y, the computer courses are offered through the 60-Plus Program for seniors, which charges $395 annual membership for singles and $725 membership for couples. Beyond membership dues, computer classes are an additional $40 for eight sessions, available at four different levels: beginner, intermediate, advanced and Internet training.
But this program is just one among countless computer training classes available to seniors.
“I think there’s a comfort level at having the program on site,” said Joe Brown, director of the 60-plus Program. “People trust what we do.”
In the past two decades, similar courses have been cropping up all over New York and the rest of the country, and many Jewish Community Centers have adopted a national program called SeniorNet, which hosts over 130 learning centers throughout the United States. On Staten Island, the Bernikow Jewish Community Center first began its SeniorNet courses in 1993, run entirely by volunteer senior citizen members, according to the program director, Beatrice Victor, 87.
Other seniors prefer learning on their own and have become self-taught computer savants.
“It was trial and error,” said Helen Ginsburg, 80, a self-taught computer user from Philadelphia. “After I got over the fear of the computer itself – that if I did something wrong something terrible was going to happen – I found out that they’re wonderful.
“Just because we’re old doesn’t mean we can’t learn,” she added.
The 92nd Street Y’s current two teachers – Vivian Lowell, 82, and Betty Kalik, 85 – decided to learn how to use computers together about 15 years ago when they began taking lessons at the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center on the Upper East Side.
“At that time we didn’t even have a mouse,” Lowell said, remembering that she struggled initially with the fundamentals and found that her instructor was unhelpful. “It’s one thing to know it—it’s another thing to convey it to someone else.”
“I used to say I’m going to throw this thing out the window,” Kalik agreed.
Computer classes began at the Y nearly a decade ago, and the same machines still crowd the tiny room with their 20th century bulk today. But Lowell and Kalik, who joined the Y’s staff at the same time as the computers, will receive a set of new flat-screen machines and updated furniture this fall, pledged Joe Brown, the director of 60-Plus Program.
“I have a group of ladies that keep coming back,” Kalik said, explaining that courses are as much a social experience as an educational venue.
Since they began teaching, Lowell and Kalik have been particularly ideal instructors for computer courses because they are in the same age group as their students and are able to anticipate the difficulties that seniors might face with technology, Brown said.
“The assumption is that younger people are the only ones who can do it,” Lowell agreed. “I can understand the problems they had – because I had them.”
Problems seniors face may include vision deficits, hearing loss and memory impairments, as well as reduced steadiness of hands, causing some seniors to perform at much slower speeds, Lowell explained.
“We have to be concerned with people who are not hearing well,” said Victor, from the Staten Island JCC. “We have to be concerned about the people who have arthritis in their fingers.”
In addition to physical impairments, many seniors face emotional blocks and fears that pose challenges to their burgeoning computer literacy.
“I’m afraid of that thing because I don’t know what it’s going to do,” said Bernice Merson, 81, one of Kalik’s students, of the computer.
“As you get older, you’re kind of resistant to new technology,” said Lowell’s student Eleanor Nalitt, 73, whose daughter encouraged her to learn computer skills for her new office. “For the young people it’s the only thing – everything is online.”
Lowell admits that at times, she does sometimes get frustrated with slower students because one person can cause everyone else to lag behind.
“It’s very gratifying to see somebody get it,” Lowell said. “I think that’s what makes Betty and me put up with the difficulties.”
And through straightforward, repetitive instruction and fervent practice at home, senior students are now able to incorporate computer operations into their daily lives.
One of Kalik’s younger students, Ceil Green, who is in her 60s, has grown from hesitant beginner to proficient Web browser and is now to send e-mails, make online purchases and talk to her family on the video chat program Skype.
“I see the kids, I hear them,” Green said.
She and her classmates continue to marvel over the seemingly endless capabilities of computers and their ubiquitous presence in daily life.
“Everything is a computer,” Lowell said. “We don’t have to know how it works – just that it works.”
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