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Elderly surfers click onto net
( 2004-01-05 11:34) (China Daily)

Deng Aizhu, a retired newspaper editor already in her late 70s, recently saw her only elder brother for the first time in two years.

She didn't take a train or a plane to Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, where her brother, Dr Deng Chang'an, a retired specialist in blood diseases, lives.

She was sitting in her own living room in Beijing chatting face to face with her brother thousands of kilometres away. This is a new facet of the Internet that Deng has just recently begun to explore.

Like Deng and her brother, an increasing number of the elderly Chinese are surfing the Internet nowadays. According to China Internet Network Information Centre, among the more than 68 million netizens in China, some 544,000, or 0.8 per cent of them, are above the age of 60.

Although they are relatively few in number they feel they are rich in rewards.

A few months ago, at her brother's urging, Deng installed a digital camera on her computer and started to engage in Yahoo chat.

"It was a great thrill to see my brother on line. To my great surprise, he still looked pretty healthy,'' said Deng.

Before that, she had been worrying ceaselessly about him.

At 83 years of age, Dr Deng had just recovered from injuries suffered in a traffic accident.

"I was really relieved when I saw him walking with a cane,'' she said.

Deng has learned a lot about the computer from her brother, who logs onto the Internet every morning after breakfast.

Dr Deng is especially pleased that the Internet has enabled him to keep up with the latest developments in medicine.

"It used to be that we doctors in the western hinterlands felt inferior to our counterparts in coastal areas, because they had more chances to follow the developments in medicine in the outside world,'' Dr Deng said.

"But now there are many special medical websites that have bridged the gap, giving us access to the latest information in our fields,'' said Dr Deng.

"Despite his 83 years, he still surfs the Internet to keep up with developments in his field and the latest news, and is game to explore every new gizmo that comes up on the net,'' she said.

Checking and sending e-mails has become an indispensable part of her life. Her relatives, colleagues, and friends are scattered all over the world, and e-mail has brought them all much closer to her.

"Retired life doesn't depress me at all, because the Internet has made it possible for me to maintain ties with the world around me,'' she said.

"Via the Internet I can see my only daughter and my lovely grandson who live across the Pacific in California. It is very convenient,'' she said.

Like most retired people, Deng has to be careful with her money. Although access to the Internet is much cheaper than it used to be, she still considers it expensive for elderly people with a pension as their sole source of income.

Her brother, Dr Deng, on the other hand, enjoys free access to the Internet 24 hours a day, as he still teaches at West China Medical College. Dr Deng is well aware that he needs to constantly update his knowledge in his field. "If I were only to teach my students the old skills and knowledge that I acquired decades ago, they would complain, and rightly so,'' he said.

Like Dr Deng, most of the retired professors still teaching in colleges and universities refresh their passion for knowledge through the Internet.

Teaching by powerpoint

Dr Deng said exploring websites is essentially very simple and that the elderly should not be frightened away by the technology.

"Whatever you want to know will be there before your eyes in a moment. All you have to do is click the right link,'' he said.

Dr Deng is proud that his students do not feel he has fallen behind the times. He delivers his lectures using Microsoft Powerpoint, and provides his students with copies of the most recently published medical charts that he has downloaded from the web and saved on hard disk.

For most elderly people who have not had a chance to learn how to use computers, learning about the Internet and its use seems terribly challenging. In response to this situation, some websites specially designed for the elderly have sprung up in recent years.

Established three years ago, the Shanghai-based "Old-Kids'' website is now well known among elderly Internet lovers. They applaud its practical training programmes both online and off line. The elderly fans in Shanghai gather in the web's salon to compare notes and learn from each other.

Li Peifeng, 61, is a member of the first group of salon participants. Before she retired, there were only a few computers in her office. "I never touched them, because I felt they were beyond me,'' she recalled. "I stood by and watched my young colleagues use them.''

After retirement, Li signed up for a computer and Internet learning programme with a university for the elderly people.

But disappointment came quickly. "After a few months of studying, I still couldn't even send an e-mail,'' she said.

Later she heard about the salon run by the "Old-Kids'' website. The first day she went to the salon, to her surprise, she found many people already sitting in the small room, sweat streaming down their backs. Some had come from distant suburbs of the city and had brought their lunch with them.

"The class was totally absorbed in the teacher's lecture which was highly interesting,'' she said.

Li still remembers the first time she wrote an e-mail, and it took her nearly two hours.

Li said elderly people of her generation have not learned the Chinese phonetic alphabet, so it was difficult inputting Chinese characters.

Personally, Li prefers the input method that combines the Chinese phonetic alphabet and strokes of Chinese character.

Now Li chats regularly with her friends on the Internet. Once she met an old friend in Japan on MSN who helped her solve some questions she had about her newly purchased Japanese camera.

Because every member of the salon has his or her own specialty, they often come together to share their stories and experience. At least once a week, the groups in the salon gather in the Internet bar in the morning, when the elderly enjoy a favourable rate.

During the activities at the salon, Li's interest in the computer has greatly widened, and she says that it is already too simple just to send e-mails and chat online.

"I am planning to learn more. Right now, learning about computer operating systems and digital cameras heads my agenda,'' she said.

New discoveries

For some elderly people, the Internet not only keeps them closer to the society, but also develops potentials they never knew they had.

Gu Fenyuan worked in a sales company in Shanghai before she took early retirement in 1996. She was only in her late 40s.

She said that for quite a long time after retirement she felt as if she had lost her way in the life. Influenced by her daughter, she started to play computer games. But she was still unhappy.

A report about elderly people learning to use the Internet greatly interested her. After completing a preliminary training class on the "Old-Kids'' website last April, she was soon surfing the Internet.

From her childhood, she has had a particular liking for traditional Chinese painting, but she never got time or the chance to fulfill her painting dream because of the demands of her job.

Then she heard about Photoshop, and discovered that drawing pictures with the mouse is right up her alley.

Since last September, Gu has completed more than 20 traditional Chinese paintings of landscapes, beautiful women and flowers and birds. To her great surprise, many of her works are shown on a variety of websites.

Last December, Gu established her own website.

"A lot of people of different ages visit my website, about 100 on average every day,'' she said with pride. "They leave messages or write e-mails to me, saying that they love my paintings.''

She has made quite a lot of friends online and keeps in contact with them regularly.

"On the Internet, I can communicate easily with all age groups,'' she said.

She has also developed a passion for making Flash flicks, selecting some music to complement the pictures she has drawn.

"Now the elderly are encouraged to learn about the Internet, and those who do not know about computers and the Internet are considered illiterate,'' said Wang Yong, an office manager of the "Old-Kids'' website.

He believes that elderly people can reinforce their sense of self-worth and fill the emotional gap in their lives after retirement by surfing on the Internet.

Because of the low incomes of the elderly and their careful spending habits, operating a website specially for the elderly will never bring in much in the way of profits.

But Wang said he believes that there is still a wave for the older surfers to ride into the future.

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