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Return of Internet class links seniors in at Edgewater Senior Satellite Center

Credit: billpellegrini1 / Flickr

Credit: billpellegrini1 / Flickr

Lorraine Edelstein and Carol Matz were strangers in January. On April 23, a Tuesday, they ate lunch together at the Broadway Armory, friends after taking the same class on the Internet. “Not on the Internet, about it,” Edelstein laughed. “Don’t know how that would work.”

Each had different reasons for taking the class – Edelstein wanted to learn about spreadsheets, while Matz wanted access to free spiritual seminars – but both agree: for seniors, knowledge of the web is indispensable.

Which is why, starting May 8th, the Armory’s Senior Satellite Center will again offer “Mastering the Internet,” a four-part series taught exclusively to seniors “55 years and better” according to the course listing. Taught by Joe Fedorko, the class will meet regularly from 1-3 p.m. on Wednesdays and cover the basics of web navigation from e-mail to supplementary software programs like iTunes and Facebook.

“Everything’s online these days; sign up for this, message this person,” said 63-year-old Maureen Holley, the Center’s sole employee. Holley allots funds provided by the City of Chicago’s Family and Support Services toward the Center’s various amenities, which include 25-40 free lunches daily, along with courses on art and physical activities.

Holley said the online courses hit maximum enrollment of seniors once she began offering them for free. “You ask seniors what they want from a computer,” she said, “and it’s always: ‘I wanna get online.’”

Most elderly people now use the Internet, with 53 percent saying they regularly go online up from 26 percent in 2005.Yet fewer than 40 percent have broadband access in their homes, according to a 2010 Pew survey.

“It’s changed a lot in the past few years. Now older people are seeking this out,” said Patricia Downs, a volunteer for the American Association of Retired People (AARP) who participates in an online meet-up program through AARP’s website. Downs said that many seniors like her now realize the Internet’s potential to relieve boredom and loneliness, but doubted many people her age could afford their own computers. “That’s why they have to go to the library, or senior centers,” she said.

A variety of seniors visit the Center’s computer room. Some will sit in the lounge for so long that Holley has to ask them to leave; others use the web in measured doses.

“There’s one Chinese couple who sits in here all day, reading newspapers from home, I think,” she said. “Another gentleman comes in every morning for 30 minutes. It’s a very big spectrum.”

To illustrate one end of the spectrum, Holley introduced me to Van Brown, a 63-year-old retired railroad worker on a disability annuity who spends three to four hours glued to one of the seven desktops every day. He said he is far beyond the level of the classes taught by the Center.

“I’m the guy that can teach you how to make $10,000 a week on the Internet within a 6-month window,” said Brown. “But nobody believes me.”

Brown has worn a patch over one eye since 1998, when a man hit him over the head six times with a lead pipe. He said he hasn’t made a lot of money off the web yet, but all of that will change when his personal brand launches in June; he will use his money to help people in developing countries, he said.

“There’s so much potential in this tool,” he said. “What people don’t realize, is we could eliminate poverty…if you understand the power of the Internet.”

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