Hazel Poole's arthritis became so painful six years ago that she could no longer indulge her passion for embroidering. But she could still type. So Poole, now 100 and living in a Delaware retirement home, launched an online news service dedicated to the kind of fancy stitchwork that had earned her so many prizes over the years.
Poole is something of a trailblazer. Folks in or near retirement are getting wired as never before--and not just to e-mail the grandkids and view photos of their far-flung family members. They're going online to bank, invest, search for alternative medicines, find volunteer opportunities, network with interest groups, blog, become politically active and, like Hazel Poole, start up something new--for fun or profit.
These kinds of enriching Internet activities are increasingly popular with the 50-plus set, and there are far more folks in this age group online than there were just a few years ago. Among adults over 50, 54% use the Internet and 24% have a high-speed hookup, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That's up sharply from 38% and 5%, respectively, in 2002.
Most of the action is among those 50 to 69. "There's a big drop-off after age 70 in the number who are connected," says Susannah Fox, associate editorial director at Pew. Still, she says, there has been significant growth among the most senior Americans, especially for things like getting health information and doing financial research.
Practically everyone (87%) over 50 who goes online uses e-mail, according to a survey by AXA Group, a financial-services firm. What's even newer is how many in this group (81%) have discovered the magic of Google and other search sites. "They are finding information that helps them identify and participate in interest groups," says Ken Gelman, director of marketing research at AXA. "They use the Net to help them focus."
Retired people in the U.S. spend an average of nine hours online at home each week, according to the AXA survey. That's up from seven hours two years ago and is an hour more than adult nonretirees who, granted, are not at home as much. But this is a far bigger chunk of time than is spent online by the same cohort in countries like Japan (three hours a week) and Spain (two hours). "Search is the sleeper," says Tobey Dichter, CEO of Generations on Line, a nonprofit promoting Internet literacy among older Americans. "The idea of being able to discover your own world is very exciting."
The oldest baby boomers, now turning 61 and just a year from being eligible for early Social Security benefits, want to stay active and engaged in something meaningful until late in life, surveys have shown. That often means some kind of job or volunteer work. Being comfortable with the Internet is practically a prerequisite.
Gone are the days when an employer or volunteer director would consider it quaint if an older person pleaded technophobia and asked to conduct business on paper. "The computer, if you can use it, enables you to stay in the workforce longer," notes Kristin Fabos, executive director of SeniorNet, a nonprofit dedicated to helping seniors learn computer skills.