The next generation

Raymond Crosby looks for cheap airfare and the latest news. Frances Deering plays solitaire and jacks. Gary, who prefers not to use his last name, looks for medical information and recipes.

What all these senior citizens have in common is that they have taken advantage of local instructional programs to greet the Information Age with open arms.

In Kathryn Miller's Seniors Searching class at the Detroit Public Library's Internet Training Lab, visitors bring in topics that interest them and Miller helps them find related information on the World Wide Web.

"We're definitely empowering senior citizens," says Miller. "We might not be preparing them for the work world but we're definitely preparing them for their own interests with the computer."

After reading an article about new research on heart disease, Gary wanted to learn more. Miller helped him access the Mayo Clinic and Journal of the American Medical Association Web sites.

Initially, Gary says, he used his home computer primarily to e-mail his friends, and decided to attend Miller's class to expand his horizons.

"Each time you get a little more confident in what you're doing and you explore a little bit further," says the 76-year-old.

Miller starts her senior students slowly, recognizing that, unlike the schoolchildren she instructs, many are unfamiliar with computer basics. She typically begins a class with a world atlas CD-ROM, asking her students to click on parts of a large globe to familiarize them with the mouse. Then, they move on to the Internet, beginning with a general search for such topics as the Ford Motor Company and Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water House.

Throughout the hour-and-a-half class they seek progressively more detailed information at a comfortable pace.

Annette Foster takes a similar approach with her Internet students at the SeniorNet and Youth Computer Learning Center at Detroit's Butzel Family Center, part of a nationwide intergenerational computer training initiative.

It was established specifically to offer computer training to traditionally underserved groups -- youth and seniors -- in the city's Empowerment Zone.

This summer, both age groups worked together in the program, student volunteers assisting the seniors.

"The kids would give you information if you got befuddled by some information on the computer," explains participant Raymond Crosby, 68. "They had a vast amount of knowledge to pass on to us."

In turn, explains participant Eunice Rice, 60, the seniors imparted important lessons to the youth.

"It helped to teach the kids a little patience," she explains.

In the end, participants left with a deeper understanding of one another, says Rice. "It gives each generation a respect for the other."

The same type of interaction can then occur at home, with technology as the common factor, Foster explains. "They want to be able to talk to their grandkids and most of their adult children use (computers)," she says of her senior students. "They still have the desire to stay abreast of what's going on in the world."

In addition to Internet training, the center offers classes in word processing, spreadsheets, family tree design and desktop publishing.

Crosby is so hooked he plans to attend the lab's computer-buying seminar so he can purchase his own machine and use his newfound skills at home. And Rice enjoyed her classes so much she now volunteers at the center.

Of course, the relaxed pace doesn't work for everyone. The DPL's Miller observes that many of the Internet Lab's senior patrons prefer to take classes offered to the general public.

"Sometimes, our most computer-savvy users are senior citizens," she says, noting that many seniors attend and excel in the HTML classes, where students are shown how to construct Web pages.

Either way, there's no doubt that seniors are embracing technology as eagerly as their younger counterparts.

"I was exposed to a computer for two hours and I fell in love with it," explains Deering, who is "68 and three-quarters" and a regular at Butzel's intergenerational center.

"I don't like to knit and crochet," she adds. "This is my thing."

You can contact the DPL Internet Training Lab at 313-833-4790, and the SeniorNet and Youth Computer Learning Center at 313-267-6021.

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