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E-mail helps father and daughter connect across distance

   By Julie Kirtz Garrett
Special to CNN.com

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.


In this story:

Day by day, coast to coast

Ageless appeal of 'You've got mail'

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Dad called me one Sunday night last summer. I knew right away that something was wrong. My father, Al Kirtz, never calls.

Before that, I cannot remember receiving a single telephone call from him. It's not that we aren't close. He just does not like to chat on the phone. My mother, Mary Kirtz, is the one I talk with once or twice a week.

When my brothers and sisters and I were growing up, Dad never even answered the phone at our house. He used to say he hated the phone because it reminded him of work. He is retired now but still rarely uses what he considers "the most harsh invasion of privacy since barking dogs."

That August night, when Dad called me at home in Washington, D.C., he said Mom was in intensive care. She had been rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery on her lungs. He promised to call me as much as possible about her condition and to tell me whether I should fly out to San Clemente, California, to be with her. I felt so far away and cut off. Knowing his aversion to calling, I was not sure how much I would hear from him.

Yet in the coming weeks Dad did an amazing thing. Not only did he keep in contact with me, but also he gave me detailed updates on Mom's illness. He did it through e-mail.

Day by day, coast to coast

My father, at age 79, has transformed our relationship by using his first computer.

He ordered one through Gateway about a year ago and took the Internet plunge in January. He had never used a computer and his typing skills were rusty. But he just kept experimenting. I never could have predicted his new hobby would help both of us cope with Mom's hospital stay.

Last summer, after long days at her bedside, Dad would go home and log on. He wrote to me about her medical condition and mood, the care she was getting, and even the drama of the ICU waiting room.

"She's doing better all the time but it's slow," he wrote one night.

"She does look better, color and alertness etc.," he wrote two nights later. "She has her calendar and reminds me of things, just as she always did, so brave."

It was a scary time for our entire family. But I am the only one of the five children who does not live on the West Coast, and his e-mails made the distance easier for me. They helped him, too.

"It helped to be able to write it all out so I think it was clearer in my own mind as well as getting it on to everyone else," he said.

Most touching to me was his ability to communicate his feelings through this family ordeal. Like other men of his generation, Dad has never been one to have long emotional conversations with his children. Somehow, he found a new voice by using the technology of a new generation. We are closer for it.

Ageless appeal of 'You've got mail'

My father is not the only senior citizen to discover e-mail.

Of the nearly 4 million senior citizens who are Internet users, e-mail is the application they use most, according to a report released in August by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.

Of those surfing seniors, more than half (53 percent) go online daily to check e-mail, compared with 48 percent of all Internet users, according to the Pew Center's research.

Nearly three in five online seniors (58 percent) say the Internet has improved their connection with family, about the same as Internet users overall (55 percent), according to the Pew report.

"E-mail is a major force in getting seniors to go online," said Sandy Berger, a Web consultant for the AARP. "It's a different way of communicating and it is binding the generations together."

The Institute for Learning in Retirement, a national nonprofit group, has seen an explosion of interest in the Internet, according to Ann Petersen, executive director of the ILR affiliate at American University in Washington.

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Four years ago, many of the 400 seniors served by her group did not know what a fax was. Now, a third of them have e-mail addresses, Petersen said. The affiliate offered its first computer lab this fall and had to turn away people for lack of space.

My father took a computer class, but it was the need to communicate instantly last summer that pushed him to become more computer savvy. With Mom unable to talk on the phone for weeks, Dad used e-mail to keep in touch not only with me but also with the rest of her family and her wide circle of friends around the country. My father explains e-mail's appeal this way:

"Phones want to be answered now. I think it is a rare instance when the caller and call-ee are ready at the same time. With e-mail each does his part at his time.

"Also, you don't have to convince anyone that you didn't really mean what it sounded like you said. You just delete it out and rewrite it until you have it the way you really intended it before you punch 'Send Now.'"

Now that Mom is out of the hospital and nearly recovered, I get most of the news about my parents from her again. She still prefers the phone. I have yet to get an e-mail from her.

Dad still never calls. But he continues to send e-mail. He no longer writes about Mom's health since she is doing so much better. Now he e-mails about his other passion: politics. With each dispatch I learn more about my father. It is strange to think how I would have missed out on knowing him so much better without e-mail.

Julie Kirtz Garrett, a freelance writer who formerly covered the White House for Fox News, lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and three young children.




RELATED STORIES:
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RELATED SITES:
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Pew Internet and American Life Project
Elderhostel Institute Network

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