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.
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.
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."
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.