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Bridging the Digital Divide: Teens Help Seniors Go Online

But the girls persisted. The Tablet PC laptop could translate handwriting into text and voice into text, record and send video e-mail and allow users to teleconference with friends and family. As the girls held the residents' hands, figuratively and literally, they began to catch on.

Avin, the retired history professor, initially thought a computer could only offer him headaches. "I may not choose to participate in this," he groused early on. Recently he said proudly, "I have been inducted into the world of computers."


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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He exchanges e-mail several times a week with his daughter, Judy Fields, of Houston, who says, "I sense a new spark in him."

Morse, 77, told the girls he couldn't use a computer because he couldn't type. That doesn't matter, the girls told him. Just scribble something out on the tablet, the computer will translate your handwriting into text, your doodles into pen-and-ink sketches, they advised. So he started doing caricatures. Now, his fans tell him he's got a style and a flair worthy of the New Yorker magazine.

Resident Beatrice Litman says she has begun to feel closer to her granddaughters.

"What separated us was that they were computer kids and I was not," she says. Mastering the ability to communicate with them via e-mail has opened up a whole new avenue, she said.

The two high school girls developed a virtual reputation with some of the residents' relatives. Visitors dropped in from New Hampshire and wanted to meet "the computer girls" who were helping their mother and grandmother keep in touch. "We're onto something unique, something this community really needs," Allison said.

Huth wants the technology to help reconnect seniors with society's mainstream culture.

Through the Barcklow Foundation, he worked with several long-term care facilities in the region, including Sligo Creek Nursing Home in Takoma Park, to connect high school students with residents by encouraging them to interview and write essays about older people. He pushed the teenagers to dig deep in those interviews.

"Ask, for example, how does an older person handle the transition from total freedom to confinement, from independence to dependence?" he instructed. "This will help us learn why some make it and some don't."

(Such projects could also create a digital immortality for those senior citizens who participate, producing biographies for them, Huth says.)

When grandchildren need tutoring in arithmetic, he wants to see grandparents use Tablet PCs "to show the child what an isosceles triangle looks like." Grandparents and grandchildren can also hook up webcams and play checkers or other games together.

Rachel and Allison have started to use a webcam to record games of charades for residents, acting out "Gone With the Wind," for example. "All the possible uses of that webcam are pretty incredible -- unimaginable just a few years ago," Huth says.

The technology is what can bring young and old together, he emphasizes. Let computer-savvy teenagers show off what whizzes they are to "old goats like me" and "help us to be a part of it," Huth says.

Allison and Rachel say their summer internship at the Hebrew Home has been rewarding. After setting up the online connections between residents and families, "the best part is to see families come to visit more," Allison says.

Though the internship officially ended last week, they say they will return in the fall to continue their work through to their graduation in 2007. And the Hebrew Home and Montgomery County schools say they welcome more computer-savvy volunteers to expand the program.


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