Online…and 79

TRAVERSE CITY – John Robson loves Skype. He uses the video chat software to talk with friends and family across the country.

Typical teenage screen addict? Hardly. Robson turned 99 this year.

The great-grandfather of five is the face of a new generation of Internet users. According to The Nielsen Company, the number of Americans older than 65 with web access jumped 55 percent between 2004 and 2009, making them the fastest-growing group of Internet users.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 17 million people older than 65 are now online, meaning half that age group is actively seeking ways to connect, learn, or watch.

The primary activity, according to Pew, is sending email. However, many are also "liking" Facebook, with 34 percent using the social media site.

The Traverse City Senior Center is one of several local places helping northern Michigan residents age 50 and above get online.

With classes on everything from basic computer skills to applications like Facebook, Skype and Pinterest, the Center is all about staying current.

"It's all about keeping up with online trends," said director Lori Wells, "so seniors don't fall behind society and their families."

Carol Brown, owner of TC Training Center, has taught people how to use technology for more than 20 years and leads the Senior Center classes.

"In our environment at the Senior Center, everyone is in the same boat: They're new to technology," she said. "Generally, within the first 20 minutes people are comfortable. They know they're in the right place for their learning needs."

Brown also teaches the logic behind popular websites, so students know what the phrase "comment on the story via Twitter" means, for example.

She also encourages her students to join social networks and stay in touch with family and friends. In fact, one former student now checks Facebook daily over coffee to get "good morning" messages from his grandchildren.

"He loves the fact that he sees their school pictures and event updates every day," said Brown. "He's reconnected with his grandchildren that he generally only gets to see in person a few times a year."

Local Apple store CityMac is also helping those 65 and older become more tech-savvy. Co-owner Jeff Broderick said the number of clients age 65-plus started climbing three years ago when the iPad was introduced.

Currently, this age group makes up 7.6 percent of iPad users, up from 6.2 percent in 2011, according to Internet research company comScore.

"The seniors who are diving into this high-tech area for the first time are usually looking at an iPad since they are less intimidating from a technology standpoint," Broderick said. "Many seniors are also interested in the built-in camera for keeping in touch with distant relatives via Skype or the Apple FaceTime app."

The new tools and technology prompt many to become students again.

"The biggest concern is whether they'll be able to figure out how to use what they are buying," Broderick said. "We offer free training seminars for six months. The majority of our seminar attendees are seniors."

In addition to stores, some are even heading back to college. Northwestern Michigan College offers computer classes solely for people aged 50 and older. The two most popular are "Beginning Computers" and "Internet Basics."

"We strive to provide a comfortable learning environment for everyone and have created courses designed for students 50 and older," said program coordinator Bill Queen.

Queen said that the age range of his students is from 50 to 80-plus and that all are eager to learn something new.

"The only thing that can block learning is the attitude of the students," he said. "If students are willing to learn and are willing to work at it, they can do it."