Society's Subcultures Meet by Modem
Homebound and lonely,
Older People Use
Computers to Get `Out'
By Joan E. Rigdon
The Wall Street Journal
(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
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
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
"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
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.
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