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Senior citizens join the social-media throng

| Monday, July 4, 2011

Joan Davi felt out of the loop with her family.

She blamed distance on some of the dry spells. It's a six-hour drive from her home in Greensburg to Middletown, N.Y., where she lived much of her life and several of her grandchildren stay.

Phone calls to the grandchildren had to do. However, the conversations, would be brief and random.

"It was frustrating for all of us, but what can you do?" she says. "Young people just don't do handwritten letters with paper and pen anymore."

Jarna Maniguet, her oldest daughter, set up an account for Davi on the social networking website Facebook, so she could follow birthdays, baby steps, even her grandson's graduation last year from the Air Force Academy.

Davi has found she is able to bridge the distance by counting herself among seniors who are the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook. Nearly 16 million of Facebook's 650 million users are older than 55.

Digital images of her granddaughter trudging through her latest triathlon, along with status changes and "likes" by other kin now give Davi a sense of being there.

"On an almost daily basis I know what they're doing in their lives, and all the things they comment on," says Davi, 73. "It's been a great blessing."

She admits there are some things on her grandkids' Facebook pages that make her cringe.

One of them is her 23-year-old granddaughter's fascination with triathlons and other extreme sports.

"When I see it sometimes I say 'What is she doing?' " she says with a chuckle. "But it's good to be updated, no matter what."

She is not alone. A study by Pew Research Center found that social networking among people age 50 and older grew from 22 percent to 42 percent in the past year.

And a 2010 survey by the AARP discovered that about one third of those 50 and older who use such sites "friend" their grandchildren.The organization expects social-networking seniors -- particularly those who are disabled or bed-ridden -- to also contribute to surging use of real-time video technologies, such as Skype.

"The world has become so small. It's a necessity kind of thing for (seniors)," says Mary Beth Leidman, a professor of communications media at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "You've got computers operating grocery stores and everywhere else now.

"They're either forced into learning how to use a computer or they're left behind."

Leidman and other experts say texting, though hot with grandchildren, is probably least-liked by among those over 55. It requires a certain manual dexterity some seniors may not have.

Getting seniors in front of a computer is one thing. Melting away their fears about social media websites so they can make up for lost time with their own families is quite another, says Kevin Kramer, owner of Silver Scholars.

Since 2004, the Upper St. Clair-based business Kramer runs with his wife, Barb, has taught basic computer skills to baby boomers and seniors. Thousands have signed up for classes over the years.

The learning curve can be steep, even frustrating, for some seniors. Still, Kramer says seniors' need to reconnect with family on social-media sites often outweighs their resistance to technology.

"For folks who were in the 70s and older, (computer literacy) was just a curiosity thing when we first started (teaching classes) years ago," Kramer says. "But as more social services, even their own family members started to do more things online, it was something they realized they simply had to do."

Jane Curry, 88, used computers for work, word processing and stock trading in the past, but hasn't tinkered with a social-media site. She has taken Kramer's classes since May and wants to eventually go on Facebook, so she can keep up with her grandchildren in Las Vegas.

"This is something I need to learn," said Curry, a Brookline resident. "It's just the way the world is going."

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