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Learning Facebook in retirement age

Classes in Facebook and other social media offer older adults options for keeping in touch with grandchildren, reconnecting with friends, and networking about health issues

Mary  McCluskey, 89, a former secretary, gets some help navigating Facebook  from Natalie Billings, in a class at Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Brighton.

SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF

Mary McCluskey, 89, a former secretary, gets some help navigating Facebook from Natalie Billings, in a class at Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Brighton.

They adjust their reading glasses to make out the letters on the screen. They type with one finger. They have their user names and passwords written down on paper.

They want to know what the “status update” is for.

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“That’s a very good question,” replies their teacher, Natalie Billings, who is young enough to be their granddaughter. “With the status update, you can tell your friends about important events in your life, like the birth of a great-grandchild, or when your granddaughter graduates from university.’’

Indeed, most students in Billings’s Facebook class at the Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Brighton are old enough to have great-grandchildren.

Billings began teaching the course in May, after the seniors expressed a desire to learn about Facebook on a JCHE survey. So she created large-print handouts with simple instructions and started helping the residents set up profiles and look for friends.

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Facebook student Zoya Melnikova, 77, wants to use the site to stay in touch with old classmates and family in Russia, Ukraine, Canada, Germany, and Israel. But, she admits, she has a hard time logging in because she forgets her password a lot.

“My niece lives in Russia, and she posts a lot of photos from her travels. Before Facebook and Skype, we didn’t communicate directly, we only heard about each other through my sister,” she said. “Of course, nowadays when my niece visits the cemetery where her mother is buried, she sends me photos of that — and she also posts old family pictures. I print them out. I want to make an album to put together a family tree with all the relatives.”

At JCHE, an organization that offers housing for close to 1,500 older adults (generally, at least 62 years old), the Facebook class has recently been offered in English, Russian, and Chinese in Brighton, Newton, and Framingham. A new computer lab opened two years ago. The JCHE also launched its own Facebook page, and is trying to encourage seniors to click on the “like” button, which will sign them up for updates about JCHE though Facebook.

“We post on it a couple of times per week at a minimum,” said the facility’s spokeswoman, Susan Goodman. ”There is a blog, we share stories from JCHE, and we use it to entice people to come to our events.”

The City of Boston Elderly Commission launched its first Facebook page this summer and plans to conduct training sessions on how to use Facebook and social media in general in October and November, said commission spokeswoman Tula Mahl.

“We are going to explain to them how to not be afraid [of Facebook] and how to be careful,” Mahl said. “A lot of older adults are afraid of technology because they hear a lot about scams. [We will] explain to them how to protect themselves. . . . We’ll explain to them that they don’t have to share everything just because someone else does it.”

The Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton is also teaching elders about technology. Last fall, workshops introduced students between the ages of 76 and 92 to iPads and iPhones, said senior adult program manager Cynthia Katzeff.

“They are bored and they want to continue [learning.] They have the time now,” Katzeff said.

While seniors are still less likely to use Facebook than younger people, they are increasingly signing up for the social networking site, said Mary Madden, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. According to the center’s latest report, released in February, 34 percent of people over 65 are now on Facebook, up from 28 percent in 2010. The percent of older adults who use the Internet is also going up: Pew estimates that 56 percent of people at least 65 are active online, up from 47 percent in 2010. Madden said retirees use Facebook to keep in touch with their grandchildren, reconnect with old friends, and even network with other people who are suffering from similar chronic diseases.

Some researchers, such as Shyam Sundar at Pennsylvania State University, are studying the mental and physical benefits of social networking for older users, especially for those whose mobility is restricted or who live in remote rural areas.

“Studies have shown that senior citizens who lose social networks become sick and die sooner,” Sundar said. “Can we somehow emulate the richness of social contact by using social network sites? We are exploring that. We have to run long-term clinical trials to see if it makes a measurable difference to long-term clinical health.”

He noted that some older people are not interested in Facebook because they are concerned about the lack of privacy, or because they find virtual communication superficial and time-consuming. Even if they create a profile, they often don’t have many friends and log in only rarely, such as once a month, he said.

To encourage more elders to give social networking a try, a group of researchers from the United Kingdom are studying how to make Facebook more senior-friendly with large fonts, Sunbar said, while there are a number of social-networking sites aimed at older users.

Back in Brighton on a recent Thursday afternoon, Facebook class attendees seemed motivated and asked questions as they gazed at a large screen on which Billings projected her own Facebook profile as an example.

As she talked, some class members tried to send messages to each other and peeked at their neighbors’ computers to see if the message came through. For most, writing each virtual communication took a while; retired secretary Mary McCluskey, 89, seemed to be the only one with good typing skills. She said she wants to master social networking to stay in touch with her nieces and nephews, who live all over the country and don’t always answer their phones.

Despite knowing how to find the letters on the keyboard, learning to use Facebook wasn’t easy for her either. “I used to make monthly reports, I used to use a word processor,” she said. “I’m not too familiar with the computer, but I’m trying. I want to know how to do things one way, not six ways.”

Computer class isn’t going to get less complicated any time soon.

Next on the schedule is a class on Twitter. Billings is preparing the materials for it now.

“Once they get the simple directions,” she said, “it just opens up the world.”

Julie Masis can be reached at greenelephant888@gmail.com..
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