Gail Martin is the first to admit she's not a fan of email.
"For me, the best thing is to sit down and converse face-to-face," says the 64-year-old Ferndale resident. "If I can't do that, I'll use the telephone. Email is my last choice."
Martin may not like email, but she's an enthusiastic user of the Internet, especially the search engine Google.
"It's an amazing information tool, like having a library and an encyclopedia in your house," she says. "I use it to check real estate locally and in Hawaii, to search for recipes, to check out hotels and restaurants when I travel, and even to find information about a friend's illness."
For years, Martin had no interest in computers. She inherited one two years ago and stashed it in a cupboard, dusting it off in May 2012 for the first time.
"I decided to take a class, because I literally knew nothing," she recalls.
Three months later, after free classes at the Whatcom County Library System and at Goodwill, she was computer literate.
For many people, email, social media and computers in general have become second nature, a part of our lives as familiar as eating and sleeping. For many seniors, however, particularly those who didn't use computers in their workplaces, there's a great deal of fear and uncertainty surrounding technology in general and computers in particular.
"If you look at the GI generation, folks aged 75 and older, only 30 percent of them are online," says Dennis King, a computer instructor at Bellingham Senior Activity Center.
King, who has been teaching computer classes to seniors the past 15 years, says they tend to be left out of the conversation if they're not online.
"It's because of the preponderance of online communication and sharing that happens between the rest of the family," King says. "Seniors like connecting with their grandchildren, seeing pictures of them and finding out what they're doing in their lives. They're not interested in using technology for its own sake, but they are interested in using it to do something they want to do."
Ann McAllen, outreach coordinator at the county library system, hears many seniors express a desire for email or Facebook accounts so they can stay in touch with their families, especially their grandkids. McAllen teaches basic computer skills at nine libraries across the county, and during a four-week-long course covers Internet usage, saving information to a thumb drive, saving images, and reading articles online.
"There have been special classes, for example, on Facebook," McAllen says. "But basically, we take the class in whatever direction people want it to go."
Most of the time, she says, the seniors who take her classes come away feeling positive and excited, particularly once they have mastered initial challenges. For example, forgetting a computer password, or not understanding how sensitive computers are to precise password entry, can be a problem. And following a cursor around a screen requires a fair degree of hand-eye coordination.
"Trying to see the screen can also be frustrating if you have poor vision," McAllen says.
Still, the moment of sending and receiving a first email can be gratifying, both for instructor and student.
"Seniors love setting up a Facebook account and getting messages from people far away," McAllen says. "It opens up a whole world to them."
For seniors who have had strokes, or for whom palsy makes it difficult to manipulate a computer mouse, tablets have become a real boon, King says.
"It's a whole different device and you don't have to learn as much as you needed to learn in order use a computer," he says. "When I hand seniors a tablet, they take it and start touching. It seems very natural to them. It's a whole different reaction to sitting down in front of a computer, which brings up a lot of inhibitions."
Some of those inhibitions have to do with a fear of experimenting.
"People need a lot of technical support," says Helen Solomons, 73, an avid user of email and Skype, and the owner of an e-reader. "We don't just experiment with things because we're terrified we'll do something wrong.
"Older people are also more cautious about safety than their younger counterparts," she says. "They're frightened they will have their identity stolen, so they stay away from a lot of things."
King encourages computer-illiterate seniors to come to Bellingham Senior Activity Center and sign up for classes in the particular piece of technology that interests them.
"The center has computers and Wi-Fi, and the classes are very modestly priced, or free," he says.
At Bellingham Public Library, "tech coaching" sessions occur at least once a week, with computers provided. People who have e-book readers, tablets or smartphones they want to learn more about can bring those to the sessions.
"You basically come in, say what you're interested in, and we set you up with a helper and launch into it," says Christine Perkins, assistant library director. "People work at their own speed and own comfort level, and the sessions are tailored to individual needs."
The library also has a variety of tablet devices that patrons can use in-house.
"It's a good way to get a feel for what device you want to purchase without a salesperson giving you their point of view," Perkins says.
King says the learning curve at such programs is often much quicker than seniors anticipate.
"If they want to see pictures of their grandkids on Facebook, they could be doing that within five minutes of sitting down," he says. "Hand someone an iPad and show them how to videoconference with grandchildren. It can be very awe-inspiring for them to have a conversation that way."
Gail Martin is big on Google, but she isn't so sure about videoconferences.
"I think Skype is crazy and the images look wavy," she says of the online tool. "My friends and I have great long-distance rates on our telephone plans, available around the clock. We much prefer to use that!"
Lauren Kramer is a Bellingham freelance writer. Read her work online at laurenblogshere.com.
- Bellingham Public Library offers free computer classes for seniors. Details: call 360-778-7323, see bellinghampubliclibrary.org or visit the library at 210 Central Ave.
- Bellingham Senior Activity Center offers computer classes for up to six seniors each month. People can sign up for two of the two-hour classes for $10. Details: call 360-733-4030, see wccoa.org or visit the center at 315 Halleck St.
- Whatcom County Library System offers computer classes at its various branches. Details: call 360-384-3150 or see wcls.org.
Reach DEAN KAHN at email@example.com or call 715-2291.