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Wired Seniors Storm the Virtual World

As Germany wrings its hands over the lack of qualified computer specialists, a soaring number of its silver-haired citizens gets net-savvy. They may not be computer experts, but they have the time and the inclination.


Pope John Paul II sets the trend for net-savvy seniors around the world

Talk of the internet and the image that springs to mind is of restless kids playing video games, nerdy software programmers punching the keyboard and gum-chewing teenagers chatting away with prospective loves.

Your grey-haired grandma surfing the world wide web? Nah, just wouldn't be like her.

These typical notions are being discarded in Germany as an entire nation wakes up to find its spry silver-haired citizens getting increasingly wired to the information superhighway.

About 4.5 million senior citizens are online in Germany and the numbers are rising according to research institutes.

The opinion survey institute Forsa estimates that by the end of 2001, about 19 percent of all people above the age of 50 throughout Germany were connected to the internet, and through it to the wide world out there.

Today surfing seniors between the ages of 50 and 59 account for about 36 percent and are the largest group of net-savvy people among the older generation.

Panacea for loneliness and keeping with the times

If one pauses to ponder the reasons for this rather unexpected phenomenon, it doesn't seem strange after all.

As in many European countries, grandparents in Germany usually live on their own and sometimes lead isolated lives.

The internet is the perfect bridge to the outside world, an antidote to crippling loneliness and a practical tool for communicating with children and grandchildren.

It's faster than an ordinary letter, and besides it gives older people a feeling of "keeping with the times" and remaining sprightly and mentally fit as one grows older.

Getting wired

The myth that older people are usually wary of modern technology is being blown away.

Several older people's homes in Germany are being outfitted with the latest electronic devices, computers and internet connections.

Information and communication is what most senior citizens are interested in. A survey conducted by the internet portal Feierabend.com (a website for the retired) discovered that E-mail and chat forums were a hot favourite among the silver-haired generation.

Thousands of senior citizens now flock to the several adult education institutions in Germany that offer computer courses specially tailored for elders.

And for many, the learning doesn't end with E-mail and surfing: it's on to burning CDs, planning vacations on the net, downloading information on topics such as concerts, weather and books.

Internet portals for older people booming

A rash of internet portals catering specially to senior citizens has mushroomed in the past couple of years. And they're eager to retain the attention of their users with interesting offers.

One of the biggest is Feierabend.com which tries to grab attention by offering topics corresponding to the interests of an older age group: hobbies, lifestyle, travel, fitness and health.

In addition Feierabend offers a range of interactive elements. For instance a successful poetry album, discussion forums on topics of interest for the older generation and online shopping.

Internet business rubs hands in glee

As an increasing number of seniors take the plunge into the virtual world, internet businesses and E-commerce service providers have begun recognising that senior citizens make for an especially lucrative clientele.

A study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin shows that most seniors connected to the world wide web are able to spend up to 600 euro per person every month. Many of them are bound to their homes and are very keen on shopping online.

About 60 percent of wired seniors have already ordered something over the internet at least once.

Small wonder that publishing houses, insurance companies, banks and other financial institutes are falling all over themselves to offer their services to net-savvy senior citizens.

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