The number of older people in the UK is growing. At the same time, use of the Internet is expanding rapidly. A recent BLRIC report  brought together material concerning these trends in an attempt to explore the possible contribution the Internet could make to the lives of older people. After looking at information and older people from a library and information perspective, it considered questions of access to the Internet, Internet resources, and the current use of the Internet by older people. This article focuses on Internet resources, but first it gives an overview of the project.
In the above-mentioned study, older people were taken to be adults aged 60 and over. However, several services and resources for older people aimed at those of 50+ are included. With people living longer and staying healthy until a greater age, there is increasing interest in the needs of a population which is ageing but active.
There is great diversity among older people, in their interests and education, as well as in their degrees of fitness and level of income. Many older people are among the poorest in the community, while others have considerable financial resources and are targeted as new consumers. Some researchers focus on chronological age, while others stress the importance of specific events such as loss of occupation or illness.
Retirement is an aspect of life shared by the majority of older people. For many, the additional time associated with retirement provides an opportunity to explore new horizons, by travelling, studying or developing their interests.
The fact that many older people are out of employment or formal education means that they are unable to learn about or access the Internet at work or college, and may have retired before PCs became widely used in the workplace. Some use the extra time available to learn about computer technology and the Internet; others are deterred by their lack of experience.
The study does not lay emphasis on health problems suffered by older people, but it retains an awareness of such common physiological changes as declining vision and arthritis-related complaints. While some older people cope perfectly well with computer technology and the Internet, others have problems with mouse and keyboard and difficulty seeing information on the screen.
For people with limited mobility, the Internet can provide new opportunities for making contact with others. For those with impaired vision, the situation is more complex: on the one hand, the Internet offers information and communication resources beyond the scope of large-print books, audio cassettes and braille; on the other hand, increasingly complicated Web pages are laborious to read with devices that convert text into speech or braille.
The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) provides information about designing a Web site so that it is fully accessible by visually impaired visitors. Among its campaigning activities, it is a member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) so that it can influence the way HTML evolves; also it contacts Web sites that are difficult for blind people to use, and advises on improvements.
As many older people do not want to be burdened with maintaining PCs at home, it is vital that there is access to the Internet in public places, especially public libraries, and that older people are encouraged to use such facilities - that is if older people are not to be excluded from this technology.
According to National Opinion Poll statistics, in June 1997 6% of 1004 UK Internet users were aged 55+. In North America, a survey conducted by Third Age Media and the Excite Network in July/August 1997 found that 967 of 7184 respondents were aged 50+ (13.46%).
Currently, older people are using the Internet for email and searching the Web for information. In North America, where local telephone calls are free, many older people participate in online communities. A few older people create their own Web pages.
Signposts to resources
This article presents a sample of resources available on the Internet that may be of use or interest to older people. It does not attempt to be comprehensive, but aims rather to show the range of material available. Many of the sites described below lead on to further sites. For example, My Virtual Reference Desk - Seniors Online has links to 92 sites on older people.
Joyce Post, Librarian at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center, provides readers of The Gerontologist with a regular column on Internet resources on ageing , and Peters and Sikorski give a list of geriatric resources . In addition, there is a vast amount of material aimed at academics and healthcare professionals.
The Appendix provides a list of URLs that can be photocopied to be used as quick guide to exploring the area on the Internet.
UK organisations on the Web
Many organisations involved with older people have set up sites on the World Wide Web. These sites serve to provide information about their services and activities. In some cases they offer information about ageing or information that might be of use to older people. Some (e.g. Age Concern) publish material on the Web, while others (e.g. Disabled Living Foundation) list the titles of their publications. Many use the site to advertise for volunteers or request donations. A few carry details of job vacancies.
The main UK sites concerning older people are those of Age Concern (http://www.ace.org.uk), Centre for Policy on Ageing (http://www.cpa.org.uk/cpa/cpa.html) and Help the Aged (http://www.vois.org.uk/hta/).
Age Concern’s site is strong on campaigning and many items carry detailed news about government policies regarding older people. Press releases scrutinise government decisions, and publicity is given to topical events like ‘Older People in Europe Month’. Age Concern has started publishing its factsheets on the Web. These cover such areas as health, travel and finance. The site includes a useful compilation of statistics about older people.
Age Concern offers support to local Age Concern organisations wishing to be on the Web. Its site hosts 27 such groups and provides links to a further three (Haslemere, Norfolk and West Glamorgan) on the Web. Local groups offer information about services within a particular community. For example, the site of Norfolk Age Concern carries details of bed vacancies in local residential and nursing homes.
The Centre for Policy on Ageing (CPA) aims to promote informed debate about issues affecting older age groups and stimulate awareness of the needs of older people. Its Library and Information Service produces AgeInfo, a searchable database available on CD-ROM and, as a ‘limited edition’ on the Internet (www.unl.ac.uk:9999/). CPA’s Web site offers links to other sites.
The Help the Aged internet site informs visitors how the charity works to improve the quality of life of older people, particularly those who are frail, isolated or poor. In addition to giving statistical information about older people in the UK, it lists the services it provides along with the titles of its publications. It suggests ways in which site visitors can work with the organisation to help older people.
Several UK sites provide information on disability:
- Birmingham Disability Resource Centre (http://www.disability.co.uk/text.htm) includes practical information on topics like the Disability Living Allowance and the Severe Disablement Allowance as well as ‘Shopmobility’ schemes in Birmingham.
- CLICS (Communication and Interpreting Services for Deaf People in North Wales) (http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/town/parade/ni30/clics.htm) gives details of its services (e.g. sign language interpreters and document translation) and of HI-LINC (Hearing Impaired- Live Information through Computers).
- Disabled Living Foundation (http://www.dlf.org.uk) carries information about disability equipment available in the UK. It also provides a list of its own publications and links to other sites.
- Disabilities Access (http://www.healthworks.co.uk/daccess/DA.html) contains samples of two newletters: Disabilities Informer Newsletter and ive Technology Monitor Newsletter
- The Disability Equipment Register (http://dspace.dail.pipex.com/town/square/ae208/) provides an opportunity for the buying and selling of used disability equipment. The Web site is updated approximately a month after the Disability Equipment Monthly Magazine has been published thereby ensuring priority for subscribers to the service.
- Disability Net (http://www.disabilitynet.co.uk) includes disability information, news, and small ads, along with facilities for shopping and penpals.
- Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) (http://www.rnib.org.uk)
Some organisations are planning a Web presence in the future. The Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, which already uses email, is creating a Web site which will give details of its services and provide pointers towards further information. RADAR (Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation) also has plans to be on the Web. CRUSE, which provides support for bereavement, is not yet on the Internet, but may be in the future.
Hairnet is a London-based initiative which offers Internet education to people aged 50+. Its site (http://www.hairnet.org/) provides details of its courses and presents Web pages created by its students. There are some links to other sites.
Two UK consumer organisations for the over 50s are in the early stages of Web site creation. Saga, well known for its magazine and holidays, has a site at http://www.saga.co.uk/, but in early 1998 only the publishing part and a link to Saga USA could be activated. Future items will include holidays, services, investment and insurance. In November 1997, AgePower was planning not only a Web site, but also an online community (Senior Net) modelled on the American SeniorNet. However, for commercial reasons, the AgePower representative interviewed did not wish to reveal further details.
The University of the Third Age (U3A) offers informal education and recreational activities to the over 50s. Its national office in London uses email (email@example.com) and is currently preparing a Web site. A local group - Tewkesbury & District U3A - already has a site (http://www.harjin.demon.co.uk/html/body_u3a.htm). This site provides general information about U3A as well as details of local contacts and courses.
Increasing amounts of government information are appearing on the Internet (http://www.open.gov.uk). For example, the Benefits Agency gives a list of available benefits. The health pages contain such documents as Moving into a care home.
North American initiatives
In the United States and Canada, there are many instances of how the Internet is being used by older people. Services range from large online communities like SeniorNet, through official initiatives such as the Seniors site from the Office of the Minister Responsible for Seniors in Ontario, to local projects like SAINTS. A selection of sites is described below.
Age of Reason (formerly Seniors On-Line)
Age of Reason is aimed at people over 50 who don’t want to spend the rest of their lives in ‘Never Ending Cyberspace’. Offering over 5000 links to sites of interest to this age group, it has three geographical sections: Canada, International and USA. There is a strong travel element as well as a Seniors Discount Mall.
Created by Martha Gore in Tucson in 1996, Cyberspace Seniors was designed by seniors for seniors connected to the Internet. It is dedicated to the purpose of teaching, learning and sharing about the Internet.
Directory of WEB and Gopher Sites on Aging
Compiled by Bruce Craig at the U.S. Administration on Aging, this site includes links to many other sites. It is organised in menus on: aging topic; aging organization; academic/research; and international sites. In addition, it contains options on other aging site directories and search engine site indices. According to Post (1996), it is strong on links to government agencies and organisations providing community services.
ElderWeb is an online community of older adult computer users. Founded in 1994 by the Arts and Science Division of Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton, Alberta, it is designed to provide services to all adults over 45 in North America. Yearly fees are CD$69 for individual membership and CD$89 for household membership.
My Virtual Encyclopedia - Seniors Online
This site provides an alphabetical list of 92 sites on topics of interest to older people (including several mentioned here). Its coverage includes academic organisations like the Gerontological Society of America, mental health sites (eg Depression Connections, GriefNet, and Psychology Self-Help Resources on the Internet) and unusual sites such as Fathers Cattery (training cats to be helpful to senior abused citizens) and 1997 World Senior Games.
NCEA (National Center on Elder Abuse)
The NCEA performs clearinghouse functions, develops and disseminates information, provides training and technical assistance, and conducts research. It uses its site to provide information on elder abuse, including statistics and publications.
OCSCO (The Ontario Coalition of Senior Citizens’ Organizations) represents the concerns of senior citizens across the province of Ontario, and is dedicated to providing opportunities for older people to become involved and participate in society. The Web site gives details about the various initiatives OCSCO is involved in: action such as lobbying; policy development on issues like health care; public education in the form of workshops to assist older people to understand social programmes and new legislation; research on issues of relevance to older people; outreach; and alliances.
SAINTS: Student Assistance In North Toronto for Seniors (and disabled adults)
SAINTS provides a link between high school students and senior citizens in the Toronto region. The students are available after school hours and at weekends to assist older people and adults with long or short-term physical disabilities with a variety of services. The services include shopping, cleaning, light housekeeping, painting, gardening, letter writing and snow shovelling.
SCIP (Seniors Computer Information Project)
Officially opened in March 1995, SCIP describes itself as the oldest Canadian seniors online information system available on the Internet. It allows older adults to explore the use of computers and communication technology. A project of Creative Retirement Manitoba, it is funded by Seniors Independence Program, Health Canada.
Computer systems equipped with standard software, multimedia, Internet access and laser printers have been placed in six senior centres in Manitoba. Older adults have access to these computers to explore the technology. Support groups of seniors with computer experience are available at each centre to help beginners.
The SCIP Web site provides such features as CyberPals, Web Discussion, Health Line and Seniors’ Home Pages. It contains information on health, lifestyle, finance and special needs, as well as a section on Canadian geography. There are links to selected sites of interest.
SeniorCom was started by Tom Poole following a search for a senior living community for his grandmother. Realising that information for the 50+ market was not readily available, he started his own company, SeniorCom. Key areas of the site are:
- Community Calendar: events for seniors; can publicise own events.
- Message Center: allows members to send messages to one another.
- Prime Lifestyles: offers information on lifestyle alternatives such as retirement communities.
- Senior Chat: main chat page.
- Senior News Network: provides news for the 50+ market on arts and entertainment; careers; finance; government; health and wellness; housing; lifestyles; people; relationships; sports and recreation; technology; and travel.
- Town Square: ‘mature guide’ to the best of the Web.
- Member Services: registration.
SeniorNet is one of the better known groups and has been widely written about . It was started as a research project at the University of San Francisco in 1986 by Dr Mary Furlong, and in 1990 was incorporated as an independent non-profit organisation with a mission to build a community of computer-using seniors. It aims to provide adults of 55 and older with education for and access to computer technologies to enable them to enhance their lives and share their wisdom and experiences.
Membership has grown from 22 in 1988 to over 22,000 in early 1998. SeniorNet offers computer classes at over 100 Learning Centers around the USA, and hosts two thriving online communities (one on the Web and one on America Online) providing resources for and engagement of the senior community. In addition, it conducts research on the uses of computer and communications technologies by older adults.
SeniorNet Online features discussion forums, live chat in the Community Center and a membership directory. Forum topics include: U.S. military; gardening; books, discussion and reviews; widows and widowers; divorced pals; genealogy research; bridge players; Alzheimer’s/dementia support; collecting; language clubs; animal friends; politics; senior entrepreneurs; travel; and writing.
Ann Wrixon, Executive Director since 15 September 1997, reports that during 1998 SeniorNet will concentrate its efforts on increasing the number of Learning Centers, particularly in lower-income communities, as well as reviewing the curriculum provided to the Centers. It will also explore other methods of providing information about computer technology to older adults who want and need it.
Seniors: Office of the Minister Responsible for Seniors
This site from the Government of Ontario provides access to information of interest to older people, their families and those who work with older people. As well as supplying public service type information, it has links to other sites. It issues a disclaimer for these other sites warning that they are ‘for reference only and are not maintained by the Ontario government’.
SPRINT (Senior Peoples’ Resources in North Toronto) is a non-profit social agency providing a wide range of home support services to help older and disabled people in North Toronto maintain independent lives in the community. The Web site includes pages on caregiver support, personal support, volunteer opportunities and social programmes. Examples of caregiver support are: home help, respite care, meals on wheels, footcare clinic and shopping.
This Web-based community was started by Third Age Media, Inc, which was founded in 1996 by Mary Furlong (the founder of SeniorNet). The company’s mission is to develop communities for Third Agers which build on their knowledge and experience. It believes that older adults are vital contributors - not merely consumers - and that they have vital ideas and knowledge to share.
The Third Age site has a magazine feel about it. The home page has bright headlines announcing feature stories and sections like Connect, Explore and Marketplace. The Marketplace has a shopping guide, books and music, cards and gifts, electronics store, financial services, gourmet shop, health and beauty, real estate, travel services and classifieds. There are links to ‘essential healthy living sites’ like Wellness, Caregiving, Diet & Fitness, and Mental Health.M
 Blake, M., 1998. The Internet and older people. London: British Library Research and Innovation Centre
 Post, J.A., 1996. Internet resources on aging. The Gerontologist, 36 (1), 11-12
 Peters, R. and Sikorski, R., 1997. Vintage care: geriatrics resources on the Net. JAMA, 278 (16), 22⁄29 October, 1299-1300
 Furlong, M. and Lipson, S.B. Young@heart: computing for seniors. Berkeley, CA: Osborne, 1996.