Although Rita Schena moved to Menlo Park from Massachusetts five years ago, she sees her old friends regularly.
She visits with her two granddaughters daily, hearing about activities and school projects. When things get technical, sometimes the kids draw pictures to illustrate what they mean.
The retired schoolteacher, 79, isn’t a frequent flier. She does her connecting from her computer at home via Skype, an Internet service that allows her to make phone calls anywhere in the world for free. And with the use of a video camera built into her computer, she can visit face to face.
“Skype and instant messaging have probably been the most valuable communication tools there are,” she said. “I have a neighbor with relatives in England, and we’re teaching her how to use Skype. Her daughter will be traveling for a year, and she also wants to talk to her then. These tools are wonderful for close and distant parts of the world.”
Tom Atkins, 87, of Atherton, is also a Skype fan — with a twist. He needs hearing aids and can’t use a regular telephone. But by using two computers, one for video and another with extra speakers set for volume and tone, he has been using Skype for several years with family and friends around the country.
Every night he uses the service to talk with a longtime friend in Redwood City, a World War II veteran.
“On a regular phone I can’t hear,” he said. “But I go on Skype, and I’m available.”
“Atkins and Schena are part of a growing number of older Americans using technology to get connected. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, which studies the social impact of the Internet, people 74 and older are the fastest-growing group on social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Skype. In 2008, 4 percent of Internet users 74 and older used those sites, compared with 16 percent today.
Now, Peninsula Volunteers, a Menlo Park nonprofit that provides services to seniors, hopes to build on the enthusiasm of people like Schena and Atkins.
“People are using wireless, and we know they are interested in other programs,” said Peter Olson, director of Little House, the activities center for Peninsula Volunteers. “Skype is an important tool, and this is where we need to go. It’s especially important for older people. A vital lifestyle keeps you healthy — it’s important to surround yourself with friends, (and) the computer is there to bridge the gap.”
In February, Little House will add courses in social networking to its popular computer-learning program.
We still teach the basics, but these new specialized programs will serve a real need,” said Bart Charlow, executive director of Peninsula Volunteers. “We’ll cover Web-based video calls and more ways to be connected.”
Atkins, a longtime computer expert who has been volunteering at Little House for 30 years, will be a teacher, and Schena, another early adopter of computer technology who volunteers in the Strong for Life exercise program at Little House, will be around too.
“The computer and other kinds of technology are intimidating if you haven’t been near them, or if you don’t have somebody who uses them,” Schena said.
But with appropriate instruction, people can connect with friends and relatives anywhere they want. For information on Little House computer programs, call 650-326-2025.