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Seniors face the challenge of computers

They learn that they don't have to be afraid of the computer age.

Posted: April 14, 2008 2:06 a.m.
Updated: June 15, 2008 5:03 a.m.
Though computers can open up a world of possibilities in terms of education, shopping and social life, learning how to use one can be daunting. If you're older and didn't grow up in the "computer age,"
the prospect of starting from scratch and learning the lingo and layout of a Mac or PC might seem insurmountable.

But with the help of dedicated teachers like Gail Eisenberg, seniors from all over the SCV and beyond are getting tuned in to the virtues of computers and finding out how they can enhance and transform their lives, sometimes in unexpected ways.

"Seniors don't want to be left behind," Eisenberg said. "Computers are a part of mainstream homes and conversations, and they want to be part of that."

For more than 17 years, Eisenberg, who lives in Canyon Country, has taught computer training classes at the Senior Center and at College of the Canyons.

She said that some seniors come to her classes to learn out of necessity and some out of curiosity.

"A couple of years back when Medicare required seniors to choose a prescription plan, there was an assumption that seniors would be able to get on the computer and find out which one would be best for them," she said. "But of course, not everyone could, which was frustrating."

Somewhat surprisingly, others come to learn in order to re-enter the job market. In these tight economic times, not all seniors are able to live a life of leisure in their later years.

"Some seniors have to go back to work because their social security is not making it," she said. "They need to go out and find a job, and computer skills are imperative."

The advantage of taking a class, like the ones Eisenberg teaches every Friday at the Senior Center in Newhall, is that seniors have the time to learn at their own pace from a professional without feeling like they are wasting anyone's time.

"Seniors don't want to be a burden, and their kids often don't have the time to go through the rigmarole of teaching," she said. "My class is where you can come and ask the same question more than one time if you need to, in a relaxed atmosphere. Stress is never a good part of a learning environment."

In addition to three levels of basic computer training, which covers hardware, software, terminology and commonly used functions in Microsoft Word, Eisenberg also teaches an "internet and e-mail"
course, and a digital camera class.

And it only takes a session or two for most people to realize that their fears were largely unfounded. Eisenberg reassures her students by reminding them that a computer is not a big mystery. "It's just a machine," is her mantra.

"Everything starts with tiny steps, with just walking in the door," Eisenberg said. "The rest just follows. Everyone has their own skill level. But once the fear is gone that they are going to break the computer or ruin it, it becomes more doable. They get such a familiarity with the computer that the question then becomes, where do you want to go next?"

Student Marilyn McEwan said she was really glad she attended the class and she appreciates Eisenberg's approach.

"It's really fun," she said. "Gail is patient and understands our wackiness. This class is ideal."

Eisenberg said that her goal, particularly in the Internet and e-mail training classes, is to get people to a place where they can research things that are of interest to them, like cruises and travel, weather, stock prices, recipes and car-buying information.

It is rewarding for her to see how her training can open up new horizons. "People are so grateful that they took the class," she said.

"It leaves them with a sense of confidence."

Wayne Burns is a prime example of this. Retired for six years, he was completely computer-illiterate, and didn't even really know what he was missing.

"I didn't know anything about computers, and I couldn't care less," he said with a laugh.

Two years later, he is a computer dynamo. Not only does he create a newsletter for his wife's Red Hat club, but he makes photos and video DVDs for his travel group.

"Digital photography came into my life, and the rest was history," he said. "I didn't think I had it in me, but Gail spotted my creativity and urged me to develop it. I'm not afraid to tackle any program now.
My goal now is to conquer Word 2007."

"He can't get enough of it!" Eisenberg said. "To watch his joy is my joy."

Another student had recently been in a car accident and was afraid to drive. She used to get out and play bridge a lot, but had become housebound. "I showed her how to play online and she loved it,"
Eisenberg said.

Learning computer skills is also good exercise for the brain, and can open seniors up to lifelong learning.
"It helps keep the mind soft and pliable so they can learn new things," Eisenberg said. "It helps maintain memory skills. And the computer is not something you just learn - it's a dynamic tool. It creates a love of learning."

The speed with which her students gain proficiency proves that it's possible to learn computer skills, and learn them well, at any age.

"One lady didn't know anything about computers not too long ago, and now she is an e-Bay maven," she said. "Just the other day, I asked her to help me sell something on e-Bay and she said 'you know, it's not that hard. You showed me how.'"

For more information about computer training at the Senior Center, call (661) 259-9444.


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