Society's Subcultures Meet by Modem
                   ---
                   On-Line Communities:
                   Homebound and lonely,
                   Older People Use
                   Computers to Get `Out'
                   By Joan E. Rigdon

                   12/08/1994
                   The Wall Street Journal
                   Page B1
                   (Copyright (c) 1994, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
 

                   On Earth in Eyota, Minn., 63-year-old retired computer reseller Bill Mason
                   has a bum leg and poor hearing, and he sometimes feels lonely and
                   unwanted.

                   But in cyberspace, he is Yota, the self-proclaimed Smart Mouth from
                   Minnesota, a man who once jokingly claimed a new cyber -girlfriend every
                   day for a month. Tapping into an on-line service called SeniorNet, he enters
                   real-time chat sessions with elderly people all over the country, listening to
                   computer-generated "beer burps" and talking philosophy. The chitchat
                   cheers him up. It's like "a group of people sitting around a big table having
                   coffee and kidding each other," he says.

                   In the vast world of on-line services, senior citizens are rare. Indeed, San
                   Francisco-based SeniorNet, a service designed for the elderly that is
                   available through America Online, has accumulated only 2,000 members in
                   eight years, partly because most senior citizens don't know how to use
                   computers. According to a 1994 survey by Link Resources Corp., New
                   York, only 4.8% of the respondents who said their households subscribed
                   to on-line services were over age 65, and only 15.6% said they were over
                   55.

                   Despite their small number, the way senior citizens use the on-line services
                   has profound social implications for the nation's mushrooming elderly
                   population. In addition to chatting, doing research and swapping recipes,
                   senior citizens are using the anonymity of cyberspace to overcome health
                   problems that would otherwise keep them isolated and lonely. With a
                   keyboard and modem, the hard-of-hearing never miss a word of the
                   conversation, and the homebound can get "out" to see friends.

                   There is no way to quantify loneliness, but it is a significant factor in elderly
                   suicides, gerontologists say. And the elderly suicide rate is 50% higher than
                   the suicide rate for all ages, according to the American Society of
                   Suicidology.

                   "Our clients are so lonely that anything would make a difference," says
                   Amy Fisk, gerontology director for the San Francisco Center for Elderly
                   Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services. One of her clients regularly
                   rode a bus long distances to a large Safeway supermarket to be near
                   people. Another client went three months without talking to a single person.

                   Of course, a computer isn't a substitute for human warmth or touch. But in
                   some cases, friendships that start on-line progress into the real world. R.B.
                   LeClaire, a 58-year-old Palm Beach County, Fla., woman who is hard of
                   hearing, says she plans to meet 20 of her on-line friends in Miami and Fort
                   Lauderdale this weekend, starting with a catered brunch at one person's
                   home. "I would have never thought of going before," she says.

                   Even the friendships that remain limited to cyberspace seem as good as the
                   real thing. This year, Ms. LeClaire's cyber -pals helped her get through the
                   illness and death of her mother and other problems stemming from having
                   been homebound for the last seven years.

                   After Ms. LeClaire posted some of her concerns on a bulletin board on
                   grief, one woman advised her to get her mother's medication changed,
                   which made her mother's last months more comfortable. Another on-line
                   friend sent poetry. And a woman who had read about Ms. LeClaire's
                   hearing problems contacted a state agency and arranged to have a special
                   telephone installed. Still others read about her postcard collection and
                   started sending cards from all over.

                   Without all this support, "I don't know how I would have emotionally stood
                   up under the weight of being homebound," Ms. LeClaire says. Speaking of
                   her friends, she adds, "I feel like I'm wearing out the word wonderful."

                   SeniorNet doesn't keep statistics on how many of its members are
                   homebound, but they appear to be the minority. During on-line
                   conversations with a visitor recently, many members said the service is just
                   part of their busy social life, to be fit in between games of golf and bridge
                   and visits with the grandchildren. But they also said that being on-line helps
                   them combat another problem that plagues the elderly: ageism.

                   Since people in cyberspace can see each other only in words, they can't
                   discriminate, consciously or not, against the aged or infirm. "It doesn't
                   matter. Your disabilities, the color of your skin. . . . It makes no difference
                   to these wonderful, wonderful people," Ms. LeClaire says.

                   Even among the elderly, younger, more mobile seniors sometimes steer
                   away from those who appear more aged. "Not having to deal with physical
                   appearances makes you maybe communicate with people that, if you saw
                   them in person, you'd say, `That's not my type.' It's been a tremendous
                   learning experience for me," says Barbara MacMeekin, an active,
                   57-year-old Vera Beach, Fla., golf and bridge player, who has met some of
                   her SeniorNet pals in person.

                   SeniorNet is no plastic bubble. Occasionally, as happens in other realms of
                   cyberspace, an outsider will barge in and "flame" the group. During a
                   recent on-line chat about nothing in particular, a flamer typed sexually
                   explicit commands, infuriating the people in the electronic "chat room." But,
                   like all America Online users, they had a defense built into their software:
                   an "ignore" button that makes any subsequent comments by a particular
                   user invisible.

                   That's not to say that on-line seniors aren't interested in sex. So far,
                   SeniorNet boasts four marriages that have resulted from on-line
                   friendships. And recently, Charlie "Chuck" Brown had what turned out to
                   be an X-rated 81st birthday party: One of the guests at the on-line party,
                   which lasted for 7,770 lines, typed in a picture of a birthday cake topped by
                   a naked lady, with the words, "Hi Big Boy!" Everyone, including the
                   women at the party, cheered.

                   -30-
 

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