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Senior Correspondent

Computers and Retirees

After a certain age it becomes difficult to master a computer, resulting in a love/hate relationship.

“I call my Hewlett-Packard desktop Bernice,” says Penelope Easton, 87, a retired professor of dietetics and nutrition. “I have given names to all my computers. I’m not particularly fond of Bernice. Computers are a necessary evil. My problem is I never learned to spell or type. I had a secretary who did the typing.”

Nowadays when Easton has a computer problem, she calls upon a skilled neighbor at The Forest of Duke, a continuing care retirement community in Durham, N.C. Among the 400 residents, there are diverse views on computers. To some residents, computers pose little challenge while for others the technology seems to be a continuing stumbling block.

Past computer experience notwithstanding, older adults look to their computers to provide a bridge for communicating with friends and family, or to perform other chores as varied as researching a future vacation trip or reading about a medical condition. Whatever the individual’s technological skills, computers give older adults a window onto the world that previous generations never had.

John Henry, 85, has been an illustrator and portrait painter for most of his adult life. About 10 years ago, he bought an Apple computer, took some how-to courses at the local community college and ever since he has been using his computer for art and design.

“Up to then I was scared of computers, and fought the idea of using them,” Henry says. “Now I use Apple software to prepare preliminary sketches for my paintings.” Each month, Henry and 10 other residents meet as part of an Apple users group.

Dick DeCamp, 76, is another happy user. An industrial engineer by training and for most of his career an upper middle manager with Western Electric, DeCamp feels at home on the computer.

He and his wife, Carol, each have Dell laptops with 17-inch screens and have set up a wireless network with a wireless printer. “I’m embarrassed that I am not more of an expert,” he says. “For help, I turn to a son and son-in-law. I use a computer to do our family budget, monitor our financial portfolio and bank accounts.”

When one of DeCamp’s sons and family relocated to Chile, he installed Skype, an application that allows DeCamp to talk and view live video of his family over the Internet.

Unlike DeCamp, Cynia Shimm, 86, a retired Duke University psychiatrist, says that she’s afraid to use her computer and not comfortable with it. ”I only use my computer to send e-mails, Internet viewing and to keep current with medical topics via Medscope.”

Joining Shimm as another indifferent user is Rheta Skolaut, 76, a retired hospital pharmacist who uses her computer to prepare reports as a Forest at Duke board member and to research genealogy.

Since retirees now in their 70s and 80s were educated and worked for most of their careers without computers, it’s not surprising that there is ambivalence towards computers. Yet depending on their workplace experience and training, some older adults find that computers add dimension to their lives and give them new outlets to explore.

Tom Gallie, 85, is an enthusiastic computer user – no surprise considering he set up and chaired Duke’s first computer science department in 1970. With a doctorate in mathematics, he was a founder of the Triangle University Computing Center, a project supported by Duke, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, the area’s three major academic centers.

Gallie uses his HP computer for word processing, keeping track of financial information, and playing some games, including a version of Sudoku.

At age 80, Jim Shuping, an engineering graduate of N.C. State, spent 20 years in the Air Force. Retiring at age 41, he set up his own computer software firm doing work for both the Defense Department and commercial clients. He sold the business in 1986 and retired for the second time at age 56. Since moving to the Forest at Duke 10 years ago, he has served as manager of the computer room and as an unofficial troubleshooter for other residents.

If one finds a range of feelings regarding computers among these Forest of Duke residents, there’s unanimity when it comes to cell phones. They all have cell phones but rarely use them, and in the case of Jim Shuping, a skilled computer user, the cell phone stays in his car.

Penelope Easton works in the computer lab at The Forest at Duke, a continuing care retirement community in Durham, N.C.

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