Late adopters

In the high-tech universe where strange new planets are being born all the time — Skype, Twitter, Facebook — Josephine Edwards might be considered an ancient mariner.

Jonathan Elias with client Lou Beverstein at his Toronto home using his computer. Elias has started a business

Jonathan Elias with client Lou Beverstein at his Toronto home using his computer. Elias has started a business

In the high-tech universe where strange new planets are being born all the time — Skype, Twitter, Facebook — Josephine Edwards might be considered an ancient mariner.

She was 87 when she surfed the Net for the first time. At 90, she’s learning the intricacies of email and emoticons. And she has lots of company — four 60- and 70-somethings who are also trying to grasp the bold new world of technology in the basement of a Toronto seniors centre.

When something really clicks for Edwards, her fellow late adopters are the first to know. “Oh, for crab-apple sake. Isn’t that amazing?” the Toronto resident exclaims as a video pops up on her screen.

For these eureka moments, even email isn’t fast enough to get the message out.

Edwards knows many elderly people who are determined to go to the grave without ever opening Windows. “I think they’re burying their heads in the sand,” she says, peering over her glasses.

“I love the Internet. I like to find out what’s up with (British singing phenom) Susan Boyle, with Octomom. … I’ve always wanted to learn the computer. That was one of my later goals in life.”

Edwards believes that, as long as she’s clicking, her heart will keep ticking. And if a day comes when she’s too frail to get out of her condo regularly, the computer will keep her connected to friends, relatives and the world.

She’s far from alone. Researchers believe computers can help push back two chronic conditions of old age — depression and isolation.

“They’re very curious — more curious than kids,” 24-year-old Jonathan Elias says of seniors. Elias runs the North York business Discovery 55 and charges seniors $25 an hour for one-on-one training in their homes.

“They often ask advanced questions. And pop-ups really frustrate them — they sit there for 30 seconds reading them all. There can be a bit of a generation gap that way. But I’ve learned so much from them.

“They think I’m 17,” Elias says with a laugh. “And they tell me I have terrible handwriting, like a doctor.”

Between 2000 and 2003, the share of people aged 65 to 74 going online more than doubled, from 11 to 28 per cent, Statistics Canada reports.

Within a year or so, half of North American seniors are expected to be surfing the Net, says computer scientist Ronald Baecker, making them the fastest-growing demographic grasping a mouse.

“Elderly people are beginning to understand that not knowing how to use a computer is like living in a country where you don’t understand the language,” notes Keith Cleaver, 63. He and his wife Beverley have been teaching Edwards and other seniors basic computer skills at Harmony Hall Centre for Seniors.

“I feel even I’m falling behind now,” says the former computer programmer. “I should be on Facebook and Twitter.”

Baecker, a University of Toronto computer sciences professor, expects computer “brain games” to turn more seniors onto gaming. Baby boomers have embraced this $225-million high-growth industry with gusto, believing largely unproven claims that the games will keep their brains sharp.

Baecker has assembled a 14-member research team called TAG — Technologies for Aging Gracefully — and plans to soon begin testing an online poker game that would allow seniors to chat and strategize with a partner online.

He hopes to team up with Ryerson University’s popular LIFE program, which offers computer courses to older people, to research whether partnering at online poker stimulates the brain more than the solitary card and poker games that most seniors favour. (Don’t expect to see StarCraft for the seniors crowd — all that online shooting and bloodletting is considered just too frenetic and fast-paced for most aged hands and eyes.)

The technological revolution among seniors hasn’t been all smooth sailing, especially for smaller long-term care homes. Despite growing demand for high-speed Internet and Wi-Fi connectivity, many are too cash-strapped to retrofit old buildings for somewhat limited use.

Mara Swartz, a recreational therapist at Baycrest Hospital and Health Care centre, remembers calling Internet provider Rogers Communications 13 years ago to try to get computer hookups in some rooms and common areas. “They’re old people,” she remembers a technician responding. “What do they need computers for?”

“That was all I needed to hear,” Swartz says. “I went right to the top, to (late CEO) Ted Rogers’ office.”

Within a month, new wiring was installed that has enabled long-term care residents such as 88-year-old Anne Schwartz to surf from her laptop in her room. She now reads her hometown Edmonton Journal online and gets 50 or 60 emails a day, largely jokes and quirky bits of news from her 68-year-nephew in New York.

“They are the highlight of my day,” Schwartz says. “I don’t think about depression. I laugh so much, although some of the jokes are kind of risque.”

About 70 long-term care facilities have turned to University of Western Ontario grads Raul Rupsingh, 28, and Stephen Beath, 30. The software entrepreneurs became famous last year when they appeared on the CBC show Dragon’s Den, touting their secret weapon, 84-year-old Hazel Bruntis, and easy-to-use touch-screen technology, then called SoftShell Computers, since renamed PointerWare Innovations Ltd.

In the end, Rupsingh and Beath turned down the Dragons’ $200,000 offer for 50 per cent of the company and have been making steady progress on their own. Just four months ago, Baycrest began piloting PointerWare’s software on two communal computers.

Staff fashioned a makeshift pointer out of a giant dollar store pencil for elderly residents who found leaning into the screen to push the icons uncomfortable.

Four residents in their 80s and 90s are undergoing training and nine are on the waiting list, anxiously anticipating their turn at the hottest new program on the PCs — a touch-screen version of Skype.

One of the first Baycrest residents to use Skype — which allows residents to have free virtual visits with loved ones far away — was a woman in her late 80s who hadn’t seen her son in Israel for some time. After Baycrest IT expert Ryan Calma helped her connect, he was overcome watching her caress the touch-screen, and her son’s face.

“Tears were rolling down her face. I had tears myself,” says the 28-year-old Calma. “I was just blown away by what technology could do to bring families together.”