FRAMINGHAM — Mary Costello had just sent her first e-mail. The 86-year-old resident of an assisted living home here cautiously pecked out a few words on a computer keyboard that had bright, oversize letters. A much younger assistant sat by her side, taking her into the age of the Internet.
“How about that,” said Costello, who leaned back from the keyboard, snapping her fingers. “It’s a lot easier than sitting down and writing a letter.”
She was among several octogenarians at Emeritus Senior Living who took their first steps onto the Web on a recent weekday morning, courtesy of Connected Living Inc. A Quincy company, it has developed a social media platform for assisted living and senior communities to provide their residents with safe and simple access to the Web.
The Emeritus at Farm Pond in Framingham is one of more than 200 retirement centers where Connected Living has contracts to introduce seniors who were born before or during the Great Depression to things like Facebook.
“The main communication vehicle in this country is technology, and how could we leave this large and growing population out?” said Sarah Hoit, chief executive of the five-year-old company. “We are going to try to connect this generation in ways others have failed to do.”
While the Internet has become an ubiquitous part of life for most Americans, just 40 percent of people over the age of 75 are online, according to a September survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington. Several software companies that targeted older people, such as FamiliLink, of Portola Valley, Calif., have failed to gain enough traction.
“Some of the groups that we’ve seen drop out have been overly ambitious. They were pitching too many bells and whistles,” said Tobey Dichter, founder of Generations on Line , a Philadelphia nonprofit group that provides senior centers, retirement communities, and libraries with Internet literacy training and software that is designed to provide instructions for older people to navigate the Web.
“What we need to do is simplify it.”
Still, she said, it is vital that businesses continue to pursue ways to bring Web services to the elderly. “As government, commerce, and the news go paperless, this is becoming a major disadvantage to the elderly,” Dichter said.
About 19 million senior citizens are without access to digital technology, Hoit said. She said that often cuts them off from the social engagement, education, and connections to family that come with being online.
Keeping in touch with relatives and grandchildren is one of the biggest drivers for residents of senior facilities to go online, she said, and for assisted living communities to sign up for services such as Connected Living, which has contracts with several of the largest private assisted-living facilities in the country, such as Brookdale Senior Living and Emeritus Senior Living.
Connected Living creates a “walled garden” on the Web, a closed community for seniors or for the staff and facilities who care for them that can keep out the more intrusive features of the Internet, such as spam.
The company’s 75 part-time employees — it calls them ambassadors — spend as many as 15 hours a week with seniors, often educating them about potential perils of online scams and other threats.
At the recent training course in Framingham, a handful of seniors, some in wheelchairs, received their first tutorials. Some worked on tablets, others on desktop computers with large, touch-screen monitors. Each learned how they could use the platform to connect with other residents who have similar interests.
“It’s almost like Facebook for seniors,” said Jason Shott, executive director of the facility.
Elderly people are often fearful when starting out on the Web, said Mary Madden, a senior research specialist at Pew. “These are complicated tools. Older adults tend to be more worried about privacy concerns, mistakes, or breaking things,” she said. But that is starting to go away as more older Americans are going online and joining social media networks such as Facebook.
Often, family members are encouraging their parents or grandparents to go online and teaching them how to navigate the Web.
Fifteen percent of seniors over 75 are now using social media sites, according to Pew.
At Emeritus Senior Living, Internet newcomer Mary Treanor, 80, now regularly checks her Yahoo account and watches YouTube videos.
“It fills up the time here,” she said. “We don’t have much to do.”
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