Logging on for life

You’re never too old to learn new skills – and when it comes to the internet, it can open up a new world of opportunity

At the Mecca Bingo club in Drumchapel, Glasgow, “eyes down” has a different meaning these days for pensioners like Margaret Melvin. Rather than scanning a bingo card for winning numbers, she is on Facebook keeping in touch with her sons Mark and Scott in Canada or viewing clips of Billy Cotton and her other favourite big bands on YouTube, or studying her family tree.

The internet is opening up a whole new world for the 105-year-old and reviving happy times. “It’s great fun looking back at the past and for places I used to go on holiday, like Broughty Ferry. It brings back lovely memories,” she says.

Melvin, who lives in a care home, has been using the computers in a scheme hosted by the bingo hall under Race Online, a national campaign to encourage more people to access the internet founded by the government’s digital champion Martha Lane Fox.

The internet remains a mystery to almost 6m Britons over 65, according to government figures. Many believe they have managed thus far and so, why bother? For others, using a computer can be a daunting prospect.

To help people overcome their reservations, Race Online has created a network of digital champions – people who are proficient in using the internet and willing to pass on their knowledge to others.

Malcolm Patman, 62, a digital champion in Nottinghamshire, says older people have misconceptions about computers and the internet. “Often they are afraid that they will break something but they want to learn because otherwise it seems that the world is passing them by,” says Patman.

Many older people believe they have managed thus far and so, why bother with the internet? For others, using a computer can be a daunting prospect

Patman runs courses for up to six people at a time in community locations including church halls, libraries and residential housing complexes, and his students have varied in age from mid-50s to 90s. It’s not important to learn how to use a computer, he says, but to understand its potential uses.

Many people don’t realise, for example, that they can pay for their tax disc online without queuing at the post office or that they can pursue new interests, for example, by tracing their ancestors on genealogy websites.

Frances Beatty, 64, from Salt in Staffordshire, is a digital ambassador with Age UK. Beatty runs courses mainly aimed at farmers and people living in rural areas. “The rural community is one where computer use is not widespread among older people,” she says. “These are people who have never been in an office.

“Yet being able to use the internet is crucial to farmers who, for government purposes, have to record everything they do and keep records online. A family not able to do this for itself would need to pay about £500 a year employing an agent.” Beatty runs her courses in local halls and even farmhouses. “They are about giving people confidence,” she says.

The move to increase the nation’s internet skills is also bringing the generations together. Explorer scouts have been helping elderly residents at De Clare Court retirement home in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, to stay connected through a social networking site called FinerDay.

With its larger fonts, it allows users to sort information into easily accessible files. All ages can sign up allowing family members to share emails, news, photographs and even receive reminders of upcoming birthdays.

Margaret Baron, aged 64, one of the residents, says: “I have sisters in Germany and Australia, a cousin in the USA, and other family members are scattered from Edinburgh to Cornwall.

“Many residents have benefited from the scouts’ help, including people who have medical problems and are less mobile. Being able to access the internet has transformed their lives.”

Senior sites

Wired up and ready to go. Here are some cool sites to rev up your silver surfing

Park your cash

Got a spare parking space outside your front door, or possibly in your garage? Why not rent it out. According to Park at my House, punters may pay you up to £200 a month for the privilege of parking in your drive. You can list it on www.parkatmyhouse.com for free on the site but expect to pay commission when you successfully rent it out.

Music maestro, please

Forget expensive music downloads, you can listen to almost all your favourite music for free via www.spotify.com. Users get access to 13m tracks and albums; they can create playlists and share them with friends. The downside is the occasional advertisements in between tracks. However, you can avoid the ads by paying to become an unlimited member (£4.99 a month) or a premium member (£9.99 a month). Premium members can also stream Spotify to their mobile phones.

Thanks for the memory

It’s only natural that we should want to pass on our significant memories to our children and grandchildren, and a host of websites have sprung up to help us tell our stories – and have them published. These include www.biograph.co.uk and www.bookofmylife.co.uk. But it’s not cheap. Commissioning a biography from one of these sites costs a minimum of £1,750. If you want to write your own life story, tips are available at www.writemymemoirs.com

Senior discounts

Feeling the pension pinch? You can access a host of discounts available only to people aged 50-plus by becoming a member of the online community www.seniordiscounts.co.uk. It’s free to join and advertising is free too, so long as advertisers are willing to offer a discount to members.

Top tips for newbies

  • Decide what you want to learn and achieve.
  • Walk before you can run – take it slowly and familiarise yourself with the basics such as a mouse first.
  • Only learn what you need to know –ignore the rest.
  • Try things out – you won’t break anything by pressing the wrong button.
  • Ask for help if you need it, especially from younger family members. Grandchildren may be the best people to explain computer and internet use.