Asia-Pacific, Headlines

MEDIA-ASIA: Senior Citizens Log On to the Wide, Wired World

Lynette Lee Corporal* – Asia Media Forum

BANGKOK, Sep 11 2009 (IPS) - They may be in their twilight years but Asia’s senior citizens are not ready to be left behind — and forgotten — by the wide, wired world.

Screen shot of Lola Techie's Facebook account  Credit:

Screen shot of Lola Techie's Facebook account Credit:

Citizens aged 65 and older are often thought to be out of place in the age of the Internet, usually the territory of the young.

But this is not the case for Tessie Moreno, a 67-year-old Filipino grandmother of 16. Known as ‘Lola Techie’ (Grandma Techie), Moreno is the official endorser of a computer literacy campaign for the Filipino elderly that was launched by a local telecommunications company in August 2008.

“I like chatting, playing online games, surfing, blogging, going to YouTube,” said her profile on Facebook, where she has more than 96,000 fans.

Upon Moreno’s retirement a few years ago in the Philippines, where Internet rate stands at 21 percent in a country of 92 million people, she really got into the ‘goodies’ cyberspace had to offer, including Twitter, Skype, Plurk and YouTube.


This celebrity grandmother’s fascination for the Internet will not be lost on 63-year-old Purnima Phadke, a German teacher and translator living in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

After undergoing a basic computer training course, the avid environmentalist and activist has become a fan of Google, Wikipedia and sites related to environment, science, history.

For Phadke, being a senior citizen need not mean going blank when her grandchildren start “talking about websites, downloads, emailing and forwarding”.

“Internet is, in one sentence, the world at your fingertips. In fact, it has made my life richer, more interesting,” she told the AMF. Phadke juggles her time between communicating with one daughter who lives abroad and watching videos and photos of her grandchildren online, and keeping in touch with her professional contacts.

Then there is India’s Arunachalam Kumar, whose ‘ixedoc’ Internet identity is quite popular online, including in the United States-based website Sulekha.com that has a million or so members worldwide.

Based in the south Indian city of Mangalore, Kumar is a medical college dean and anatomy professor who got “wired” about 10 years ago. At 60, he has more than 1,500 online write-ups, around 900 blogs and spends about 150 minutes online daily.

A self-taught cyber surfer, Kumar said: “The Internet has changed my world. . . . Many wonder about my wasting time on the Internet, not really aware of the potential of the medium to be a very useful tool for research and reaching out.”

News reports say that older people are among the faster growing users of the Internet in industrialised societies. While such data are not easily available for Asia, examples show how some elderly citizens are exploring the Internet as usage rates continue to grow in the region.

Internet penetration in Asia stands at 18.5 percent, compared to the world average of 24.7 percent, according to Internet World Stats, a website that tracks Internet usage around the globe. As of June 2009, it reported 704.2 million Internet users in Asia, or 42.2 percent of the world’s users.

Some Internet companies are already responding to having more elderly users. In March 2009, Baidu, the leading search engine in China, launched a search engine for elderly users that has more mature content such as classical poetry, larger fonts and less cluttered pages for easier navigation.

Local industry reports say Baidu hopes to see the number of older users in China continue to rise. Only five million people over the age of 50 had used search engines by the end of 2008, out of a total of some 300 million Internet users in China at the time, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC).

But while the numbers of Asian users are large – China alone has 338 million users, Japan has 94 million and India 81 million — the percentage of the population using the Internet is often much lower. This stands at 25 percent in China, 7 percent in India and is much higher at 74 percent in Japan.

Those like Lola Techie and Phadke are often still the exception when it comes to computer and Internet literacy.

For instance, Phadke’s 74-year-old husband, a chemical engineer, does not quite share her enthusiasm. While conceding that the Internet is a “great development”, Purushottam Phadke admitted that he “cannot get the hang of using the computer”.

“I have made attempts, but I forget the steps involved, because my memory is not as efficient as it used to be. If I did not find it troublesome to remember, I would also have been happy to learn,” he explained.

Thai neighbours Aunt Tui, 67, and retired military officer Samai Tipprateep, 68, are not too keen on the Internet as well.

“I’m scared of using it (computer). It’s a machine and I’m afraid it will explode or something if I hit the wrong buttons,” quipped Tui, a grandmother of four who once upon a time did ask her grandchildren to teach her. “I ended up forgetting how in just ten minutes after they taught me. I felt embarrassed,” added the Bangkok resident.

Samai had a Hotmail account five years ago but eventually gave it up. “It wasn’t easy to learn how to use the Internet and all those commands. But you know, I’m an old man with a bad memory. It was hard to keep up,” he said.

Still, both Samai and Tui find the Internet very useful. “It helps people get to know things globally faster than they can imagine,” said Tui. Samai added: “The Internet is superfast and I could visit places I’ve always wanted to go to within seconds, without having to spend a lot.”

But when catching up with friends, he prefers to use the telephone. “Nothing is good as hearing their voices. Typing all the time is too cold,” Samai added.

A quick check of Thai online sites reveals minimal computer literacy programmes for the elderly – or almost none. Most websites relating to the elderly deal with health care issues.

Computer literacy programmes are often among the most effective ways to get the older generation familiar with the Internet. In Singapore, many computer lessons for seniors are sponsored at the community level. Some older folk rely on the time and patience of their children and grandchildren to teach them about the online world.

“The whole world is moving to this mode of communication, so it makes sense to keep pace… and you don’t feel you belong to an ‘obsolete’ generation,” added Purnima Phadke.

While there are basic computer classes for the aged in India operated by private institutions, there are really no widespread and comprehensive government programmes to teach computers to the elderly, said the Phadkes’ daughter, journalist and researcher Smita Deodhar.

“Computer literacy is predominantly an urban phenomenon — it is spreading to small towns and to a very limited extent, to the relatively more advanced rural areas. But the elders who have caught on would belong to a very distinct urban, middle-class and up educated group,” added Deodhar, also an avid blogger.

Meantime, Moreno is busy with the ‘Teach Lola’ website (www.teachlola.com), dedicated to teaching grandparents about the nitty-gritty of computer and Internet use.

According to BayanTel, the Philippine telecommunications company behind the ‘Teach Lola’ website, only “11 percent of the elderly know how to use the Internet”. But BayanTel officials admit that since there has not been any comprehensive study on the “Internet habits of the elderly”, it is difficult to say how many of the elderly are really wired.

In India, a Facebook-like website for people aged 50-plus has been attracting a lot of senior citizens. The social networking site Verdurez.com now has 4,000 members, and its oldest member is 70 years old.

“We’re in an ‘age of connections’ and it is but natural for people, more so with the elderly, to want to stay connected, especially if you think about the Filipino diaspora and those who are far from their loved ones,” observed Kathy Moran, a features and technology journalist with a Philippine daily broadsheet.

More than 10 percent of Filipinos live overseas, making finding ways of staying connected a basic need for many families.

*Asia Media Forum (http://www.theasiamediaforum.org)

 
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  • Rammohan Khanapurkar

    Dear Ma’am/Sir,

    We run a magazine ‘Dignity Dialogue’, published by ‘Dignity Foundation’; a not-for-profit NGO working for the welfare of elderly citizens in India. It educates them about current developments and issues directly affecting their lives. We are using the web-article
    “Senior Citizens Log On to the Wide, Wired World” for our current issue, with appropriate credit given to AMF, the author and IPS News Agency.

    You’ll appreciate that the article would benefit many elderly citizen in India.

    Regards,
    Rammohan Khanapurkar
    Editor, Dignity Dialogue