Grandpa and Grandma are `getting wired'
"Adopt a Finnish grandmother!" suggest the producers of the Hame Castle Children's Festival, which takes place every August in the city of Hameenlinna, Finland. The project makes it possible for children around the world to create an Internet connection with English-speaking Finnish seniors. The children relieve the loneliness of elder Finns and are exposed to individuals who come from a different culture and generation.
But before you can adopt an online granny, you have to convince her to connect to the web, and that is not always a simple matter. Many members of the senior generation, who did not grow up with computers, are frightened of this technology or ignore it completely. Even seniors who recognize the computer as a potential tool to facilitate communication and provide entertainment, do not know how to approach it.
"When we told people to come and learn how to use computers, they told us that they are beyond such things and have managed to live their entire lives without it," says Nava Gilad, head of the Israel Internet Association (IIA) Task Groups, which promote Internet access in Israel. Gilad's staff is charged with bridging the digital gap among poor and physically challenged members of the population. One of its main goals is to introduce older people to information technology. This is a complex challenge, but members of IIA Task Groups and the Education Ministry have recently seen some positive results.
The payoff is a lesson in history
There are four different groups working in this area in Israel; most of the instructors are under the age of 12. A few years ago, Edna Afek, former-senior education advisor to the Education Ministry, was searching for a way to make it easier for seniors to approach the Internet, and to maximize their Web experience. The cursor pointed her to their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren. "In this high-tech world, where children speak the language of Internet as if it is their mother tongue, it is worth putting their knowledge to good use in educating others, in this case, seniors," Afek wrote.
Afek founded the Hakesher Harav Dori (The Multigeneration Connection) project in which seniors learn to use the computer from children. In exchange, the elderly pupils tell their young teachers about past events and what life was like when they were children. In other words, the children were given first-person history lessons. The project was first successfully implemented at the Alon Elementary and Middle School in the Judean Hills local council in 2000, and took off from there.
"At first I thought elderly people just eat, watch television and sleep," a Jerusalem eighth-grader once told Afek, "but after the first meeting, I saw that they have an outside life." The pupil said that the contact had increased his sense of responsibility and patience.
The fact that the project required training very young teachers to instruct very old pupils presented some of the main challenges to its implementation. The children had to learn to speak loudly and clearly to their charges. They had to resist taking control of the mouse to click on their own, to patiently teach their pupils to do this for themselves.
The teachers had a lot of original ideas: During the most recent meeting of project participants at the Alon School, the young teachers decided to dismantle a computer in front of the seniors. There is no doubt that the curiosity of both generations played a role in this experiment.
Tami Green, who directs the program for the Ministry of Education, and Bracha Luzon, deputy director of the Seniors Education Department, visited the Rene Cassin Middle School in Jerusalem in February. When Luzon entered the school, she met a pupil in the program whom she knew: Yaakov Cohen, now in his 80s, was her music teacher when she was a girl. "Another man who sat next to him said that he was a retired mathematics teacher and accustomed to being a source of knowledge to everyone around him - his children, his grandchildren, his pupils and his wife. In the computer age, he said, `I suddenly didn't know anything.' Now that he has learned, his wife is jealous of his progress and they engage in competitions," Luzon says.
The project is now jointly supervised by the Education Ministry's Seniors Education and Science and Technology Departments. So far, most of the teachers have participated on a voluntary basis. This year, the ministry has allocated a budget to promote the project for the first time. During the coming school year, the ministry will support 20 groups around the country, in religious and secular public schools. In the city of Lod, led by Pedagogic Director Ronit Nehemia, the program will be conducted in Arabic and Russian as well as Hebrew. A program in Amharic is also in the pipeline.
Children are not the only ones who can open the gates of the Internet for their grandparents. Sami Mualem completed his military service, enrolled in law studies at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono and was re-inducted - this time in service of the information age. In a program jointly conducted by the IIA, the LIBI Soldiers' Welfare Association and the Foreign Ministry, college students teach computer skills in senior residential facilities. Their seniors use their new-found knowledge to assist in the translation of the Foreign Ministry Web site into nine different languages.
"Some seem to think that old people deserve old computers," says a frustrated Mualem as he makes a futile attempt to connect to the Internet in the Mishan-Fichman Senior Home in Tel Aviv. Indeed, many of the computers donated to senior residential facilities do not meet current high-tech standards, but the users sitting in front of them do not disappoint.
The friendly golem
"This golem remains a golem, but it is a friendly one," says Henriette Scheffer, 83, who is assisting in the translation of the ministry Web site to French. "He doesn't control me and I don't control him. There's no end to this, but I progress a bit every day." Scheffer was attracted to computers when she discovered that her reputation as an omniscient grandmother was threatened by her ignorance in this realm.
Mualem's other pupil, Shmuel Borush, also 83, has a more troubled past. "I came to the senior home as a man with no direction in life and no hope," he says. "I was very miserable, and then I heard that there was a computer course. My wife said, `Go, you idiot!'" Borush now sings Mualem's praise while translating text into Hungarian with the assistance of the Internet, which keeps him abreast of advances in medicine.
The teacher lavishly complements his pupils. "I have friends at college who don't know how to send e-mail. These two know more about Internet access than my mother," he says. "Maybe she's just too young."