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The older generation is now tech-savvy

Barbara Mehlman, of Great Neck, at her home

Barbara Mehlman, of Great Neck, at her home surrounded by her computers and touch screen devices. (Sept. 28, 2011) Photo Credit: Chris Ware

At age 68, Barbara Mehlman knows technology is not just for the young. Mehlman, a full-time library media specialist, loves electronic gadgets so much that she got a part-time job at the Apple store in Manhasset.

"I love what technology can do," Mehlman said. In addition to an iMac at home in Great Neck, she owns an 11-inch MacBook Air notebook for traveling, an iPhone 4 and an iPod Nano. (Not familiar with these gadgets? See the glossary below.)

She's always researching something on the Internet. And recently, while looking into a health issue, she discovered a very small study related to her problem. "I sent it on to my doctor, who didn't even know about it," she said.

By far, Mehlman is not alone. The over-50 crowd is computer savvy and is a fast-growing segment of consumers who buy smartphones, tablets, e-readers and other mobile devices.

An AARP study released in January of more than 2,000 people found that 89 percent of those 50 and older own some type of mobile technology, such as a cellphone. And a July survey by Affinity's American Magazine found that baby boomers are 19 percent more likely to own an e-reader than consumers in other age groups.

"The 50-plus demographic are the fastest-growing consumers of technology," said Nataki Edwards, vice president of digital strategy and operation for AARP. "Their adoption of mobile [technology] is growing so fast. What we're seeing is that seniors, like anyone, want to use products and services that make their life easier, and technology is part of making your life easier."

This generation is the first to be tech-enabled in their senior years, said Susan Ayers Walker, a nationally known speaker and writer on issues of aging. "The previous generation, about the most sophisticated technology they used were ATMs and, maybe, microwaves. But as the boomers entered the workforce, and we got into the 1980s and '90s, computing was something they needed to know."

Jayne Stavola's family didn't own a television until she was in the fourth grade, but now the 70-year-old retired high school history and economics teacher is either on her computer or iPhone constantly.

She said she hesitated at first, but after some lessons from her son-in-law, she is an iPhone fanatic, using it to check stocks, track weather, read email, and keep in touch with family and friends on Facebook. "It takes a while to get used to, not being of that generation, but it's doable," Stavola, of Bellport, said.

For those who think they missed the high-tech train, there's still time to get onboard. It's never too late to start learning -- from the basics of typing on a computer to digital photography and more, said Slava Vero, co-coordinator and director at the SeniorNet computer learning center (

With offices in Huntington and Yaphank, the organization has a yearly enrollment of 600 to 700 students who are 50 or older, Vero said. Workshops on using tablets, e-readers and iPods have become so popular that SeniorNet now holds them at locations with larger rooms. SeniorNet classes cost from $25 to $70, and primers are offered at local libraries and BOCES centers.

For some, retirement has meant more time for technology.

After retiring, Sheila Gatling, 62, who taught sixth-grade social studies and English in Amityville for 34 years, co-founded Moodlerooms, which provide open-source software that enables teachers to run courses and connect with students online.

"I'm online all the time," said Gatling, of Hempstead, who owns a smartphone and Kindle. "It's a very exciting time for senior citizens," she said. "We can always be connected. We don't have to lose touch" with friends and family.

Tom Whitby, 63, of Sayville, has long been interested in new technology. He got his master's degree in educational technology when he was 45. Now a retired English teacher, he's as busy as ever, running an online personal learning network for educators, The Educator's PLN, with more than 900 members.

He has 13,000 followers on Twitter and is always connected to the Internet, through his Android smartphone, laptop or iPad. He blogs using Wordpress and uses Skype to communicate, even appearing on panels via videoconferencing.

"It's not a generational thing, it's a learning thing," he said of technology. "You can teach yourself how to do these things."

For others, technology is a family affair. Peggy Drowns, 59, husband Charlie, 73, and son Ciaran, 13, are all connected, in large part because of Ciaran.

"Recently, my son conned us into buying an Android-type phone. When my husband saw what my son had, he wanted it, too," Drowns says. "When we get stuck, we rely on our son to show us."

Drowns found that technology makes her life more comfortable, especially during her commute to Manhattan, where she works as a program director for a human services nonprofit agency.

She's had a BlackBerry for the past four years, finding it handy to keep up with work and also to be notified of any LIRR delays. She has two netbooks (think miniature computer) -- one for the office, one for home -- and carries a Kindle on the train.

"I got the e-book reader because I'm a prolific reader and humping a 10-pound Stephen King back and forth between the LIRR stations was not fun," she said. "It's easy to read, it's light, easy to maintain, and I rarely have to recharge it."

For the older generation, there's no turning back, said Ayers Walker, who envisions people demanding wireless networks when they move to assisted-living facilities. "We're going to want the ability to access the cafeteria to see what's on the menu, to see what the day's activities are," said Ayers Walker, 65. "No more will we be old and isolated. Our generation, we're going into old age, and we're going to reboot the whole thing."

Gadget glossary


iPhone 4
Apple's fourth-generation of its popular smartphone, which includes a camera, video recorder, videoconferencing capability, and the ability to browse the Web and play games. The iPhone 4S will be available starting Oct. 14.

iPod Nano, iPod Classic, iPod Touch
These are Apple's media players. Depending on which one you get, you can listen to music or podcasts, watch videos, play games, do emails and make video calls.

Android smartphone
Owned by Google, it is Apple's biggest competitor.

A free publishing platform for blogs and websites.

A free videoconferencing system that can be downloaded onto computers, tablets, some smartphones and some media players.

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