Ella Letterie, 71, has no time to play Solitaire now that she has discovered the Internet.
“I was interested in learning the computer because I had nothing else to do. I felt I really should be doing something with my life besides knitting. I just didn’t want to sit in a rocker and rock my life away.”
Letterie is one of 35 senior citizens known as the Silver Stringers who produce The Melrose Mirror, a community Web page that includes news about their lives and community, tips about saving money in retirement, stories about food, travel, art, and poetry.
The participants say that going online has connected them socially, made them feel useful, and also made them happy. “I love being online,” says 72-year-old Virginia Hanley. “Mostly, I love it because it’s new and there’s so much to learn.”
Sponsored by the MIT Media Lab, the four-year-old project is based at the Milano Senior Center in Melrose, Ma., and was begun to study the role of the community and how electronic tools can enhance community life.
“We were interested in what this activity does to the seniors who participate, and does it have any impact on the community as a whole,” says Walter Bender, associate director of the Media Lab.
The project has been so successful that older people around the world have been inspired by the Silver Stringers to create their own Web sites. The Media Lab is now sponsoring comparable projects in Costa Rica, Brazil, Thailand, and Finland. And similar projects are also underway in the Boston suburbs of Revere, Danvers, and in the Brighton section of Boston.
“It really changed my life,” Letterie says. “Now I come here and I’ve met all these wonderful people. It really increased my social circle.”
Hanley, a retired secretary, says she was socially isolated before she began going to the senior center to write for The Melrose Mirror. “It was so easy to stay home. I used to go to the library, check out five books and stay home and read,” says this woman who lives alone. “Now I don’t have time for that. Going online changed my life.
“Now I’m much more interested in everything. I feel livelier. I get up in the morning and think of all these things I can try on the computer. And it has made me more connected with other people.”
A recent Stanford University study suggests that long hours on the computer isolate people from family and friends, but judging from this project the opposite is true, Bender says. “This is a group who had casual, occasional interactions with each other and now they get together face-to-face three times a week. That’s a good, positive result.”
Jim Driscoll, 75, a retired marketing executive, says that email has connected him with others in a way he never imagined. “I love email,” he says. “I use it all the time. I have a big, extended family and we’re constantly using it to make plans. It’s a great way to stay in touch.”
Jack Driscoll, editor in residence at the Media Lab, says the mission of the writers is to share their wisdom and experiences with the wider community. “There is something inside people, particularly older people, that makes them want to share their wisdom,” he says. “I think they feel they have a special expertise that comes from their years, and they want to share it.”
Virginia Hanley loves the opportunity to be expressing herself through writing. “Now,” she says, “I’ve got half a novel written.”
Marjorie Burgess, 85, a retired composer, created a theme song for the Web page and also set one poem to music. She says the project has brought her new energy for living. “I feel useful again. And that feels great.”
At the outset, MIT gave the Center four computers and provided the senior citizens with initial instruction. Now some seniors have learned to use video equipment and others have learned to write computer code.
“Originally, there were only two people who had computers and neither one was connected to the Internet,” says Jack Driscoll. “In fact, one of them didn’t know if it was a PC or an Apple. But now, most of them have computers at home.”
Letterie says she now does her banking online and also shops on the Internet. Often she visits ebay, the online auction house. “I bought a digital camera and a printer and used my credit card. My husband said, ‘You’re giving out your Visa number on the Internet? What are you, crazy?’ But I told him, ‘It’s encrypted, so relax.'”
“Senior citizens absolutely can learn to use the computer,” Virginia Hanley says. “There’s really no barrier to it if you put your mind to it. You fumble a lot, but you can learn and it really adds a lot to your life.”