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Limited mobility doesn't stop senior surfers

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(IDG) -- For older Americans, the Web offers a door to family and health information. As the number of graying Netizens grows, some in the health industry are looking at changing their sites to meet seniors' needs.

Technology experts gathered recently to discuss ways to make technical resources more accessible for mature users. Seniors often have difficulty navigating the Web, finding information, and sometimes even remembering the object of their search, agreed speakers at the "Older Adults, Health Information, and the World Wide Web," conference at the National Institute of Health.

"There is a dramatic decline in Internet use as a function of age," says Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Health. "We need to address this in figuring out ways to effectively communicate with older Americans." Arguably, those who most need online health information are those who have disabilities and the most trouble using the Web, he adds.

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For example, a site called the "Interactive Age Page" is being constructed specifically to meet cognitive and visual requirements of older people. Developed by the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine, it will offer medical information and feature simple organization, navigation, and design. Key information is repeated throughout the site to accommodate seniors' memory retention, and scroll bars are outlawed because they are difficult for visually impaired eyes to focus on. The site is scheduled to go live this summer.

"We've seen a dramatic change in recent years as to how patients get their health information," Hodes says. "Physicians and caregivers use the Web as a resource, and patients are also using it themselves. The dynamic has changed, so it's no longer uncommon for a patient to bring health care information they've learned from the Web to their caregivers."

Training eases concerns

Yet many older Americans are still wary of the Web. A Pew Internet and American Life survey released in September finds 74 percent of those over age 50 who are not online say they don't ever plan to get Internet access. But 65 percent of those under 50 do want to get online. So why are older people avoiding the technology?

"The barriers to Internet use are access, skill, and intimidation," says Tobey Gordon Dichter, of Generations On Line. The nonprofit corporation provides both a learning product and self-training services to senior centers, libraries, and retirement homes.

Computer teachers at two senior centers in Maryland say their residents aren't shying away from the Web. Older people there are rapidly enrolling in Internet training classes to find out what they've been missing.

"We've had a lab of 18 computers for four years now, and have been Internet enabled for the past two years," says Edie Roscher, director of the O'Malley Senior Center in Anne Arundel County. "Seniors at our center are constantly e-mailing their kids and grandchildren. Some use the Web to research personal interests. One woman studies art history, and there's a group of 12 who have formed a genealogy group."

Many enthusiasts are "the younger generation" -- newly retired seniors who used PCs in the workplace, Roscher adds. But 60 percent of class attendees are using the Web for the first time.

"We have a waiting list to get into classes, and we expect double the number of people than the 13 we can fit in class," says Sherman Krasney, a computer instructor at the senior center in Bowie.

Voice input sought

Krasney himself is a youthful 75. He says he's been using computers for years, but the classes are for people who don't even know where the plug is.

"Many have never even seen a computer before and are afraid to touch it because they worry they'll break it. I tell them, go ahead, break it if you can," Krasney says. "When they see that their mistakes won't hurt the computer, they lose the fear."

The Bowie Senior Center teaches word processing and how to research information on the Web and use e-mail.

"They're here to e-mail their grandchildren, that's the number one reason seniors take these classes," Krasney says. "And a lot of people also look up their medicines to see what other medication may conflict with it or go to the university sites to see about the latest treatments." He wants to install voice-input systems next.

Such technologies are not far off, says W.S. "Ozzie" Osborne, manager of IBM Voice Systems, who spoke on human interface technology at the conference. IBM is working "to get computers to talk to us -- like in The Jetsons," Osborne says. "People want to be able to talk to a computer. They want the machine to understand them as a person, and not have to learn how to use it."

An elderly person may not be mobile or get information easily, but could always be in communication with, say, a voice-enabled wireless Internet access device built into a wristwatch, Osborne explains. They could carry it with them and even call out for emergency help without needing to move.

"Because of voice recognition, people will be able to do things they never could before because of poor sight, poor hearing, or immobility," Osborne says. "Older people will be able to videoconference with their families without leaving home. Technology can open up worlds to these people."




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RELATED SITES:
National Institute of Health
National Institute on Aging
National Library of Medicine

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