Japan "computer grannies" grip Internet lifeline

Wed Aug 24, 2011 4:13am EDT
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By Yuko Takeo

TOKYO (Reuters) - Fifteen years ago, a growing sense of isolation due to old age prompted Kayoko Okawa, then 66, to knock on the door of a local volunteer center and timidly ask if it was possible for someone her age to start an online community for seniors.

The energetic 81-year-old is now president of the "Computer Grandmas Group" and says connecting this way can ease loneliness for Japan's increasing number of seniors who live alone -- and, more importantly, stave off a lonely death, with the bodies often not found for days.

"I like to remember how we used to write letters - including photos, pictures," Okawa said. "It was the personal touches that mattered."

Turned down 15 years ago by many groups with comments like "there's no way a granny like you could do it," Okawa's tentative questions were met by friendly enthusiasm and advice from two young men, who immediately offered to help set up the network and print business cards for her.

Advocating the use of IT technology among the elderly, the Computer Grandmas, who now number over 250 women -- and men -- across Japan, hold twice-monthly classes to teach seniors how to use the internet. They also maintain a listserve which has become a thriving online community.

"I suppose it spread because everyone felt lonely. It's a time of life when everyone, whether male or female, feels a little alone," Okawa said.

"We talk about the 'aging society' and the 'need for psychological support' and such... but the truth lies in everyone being just a bit lonely."

When Okawa first began her quest, personal computers were still quite expensive and could cast upwards of 600,000 yen ($7,800 in current terms), way beyond the cost of pensioners.   Continued...