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Bridging the Digital Divide: Teens Help Seniors Go Online

By Jim Buie
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 3, 2004; Page C09

Senior residents of the Hebrew Home in Rockville are learning their way around the Internet, mastering elements such as e-mail and videoconferencing, and maybe changing their lives in the process.

Ben Avin, a 91-year-old retired history professor from the University of Virginia, is exchanging e-mail with his daughter in Texas.

Wootton High School sophomores Allison Lewis, left, and Rachel Gopenko, center, teach Sally Jaffe some e-mailing tips at the Hebrew Home in Rockville. (Photos Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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Walter Morse, 77, a retired government attorney, is doing caricatures with the help of advanced computer technology.

And Lillian Kline, 80, just wowed her family by sending a video e-mail. She also receives frequent dispatches from her grandson in Russia.

In a way they've become pioneers in a collaboration between the Hebrew residence and Wootton High School that organizers hope will help combat loneliness and depression among residents of long-term care facilities.

The effort began when two Wootton students, Rachel Gopenko and Allison Lewis, decided they wanted to fulfill Maryland's community service requirement by using computer technology to help elderly Americans. They developed an independent study proposal. Serendipitously, John Huth, an 81-year-old retired engineer from Arlington, contacted Montgomery County schools about the enormous potential he saw in pairing teenagers with residents of long-term care facilities, and arming them with advanced laptops and the latest software.

Huth became the girls' mentor, and donated an Acer Tablet PC laptop, along with a webcam and a wireless hub, to the Hebrew Home. Rachel and Allison, both 15-year-old sophomores, started working with the residents in mid-June.

"I believe technology can be an enormous help in reducing isolation and depression among the elderly, in honoring and recording their experiences," says Huth.

This is just one of a number of local, national and international projects -- most in the early stages of development -- that draw on recent advances in computer technology to aid long-term care residences. Internet-connected webcams (nicknamed "granny cams") have been set up in several Florida nursing homes so relatives can look in over the Internet and see if their loved ones are receiving adequate care. In the Netherlands, a government-subsidized project called Cam-Care allows patients at home to hook up with doctors and nurses via webcam, receive routine examinations and save both time and money.

But what's most necessary, says Huth, is connecting older Americans with friends, loved ones and young people over the Internet. He is vice president of the Barcklow Foundation, which focuses on improving the quality of life for the nation's senior citizens. The initial reaction to the technology at the Hebrew Home was underwhelming, Rachel and Allison say. Wary residents found the computer keyboard confusing. They "didn't know what a 'file' was," Rachel says.

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