Interviewed by John Papageorge
Mary Furlong's high-tech baby was born 10 years ago in a basement at the University of San Francisco. A fiscal angel named Lloyd Morrisett of New York's Markle Foundation gave Furlong the cash to link 20 people and 5 learning centers in a far-fetched scheme to develop an online community called SeniorNet.
A decade and 60,000 older adults later, Furlong's dream of a virtual front porch and community center in cyberspace is a living, breathing reality. And there aren't many rockers on this front porch.
SeniorNet -- which serves as the gateway to the Net for many technology-shy older adults -- is also a resource for younger people. They access it through America Online (or another service) and use it as a portal to meet and learn from their elders.
Furlong's work reflects the Southern family values she inherited through her mother's Virginia roots. If she could meld her grandmother's sense of community with existing technology, Furlong realized she could "create a sense of community for older people; they could share what they were learning."
Furlong's creation is all about smashing stereotypes, changing the way we view our elders and empowering them to take control and even assume leadership roles in their online communities. With computers acting as the great equalizer, people with physical disabilities find that they are not limited in a world where intellect and curiosity are the most important tools.
While mid- to late-boomers are busy working and raising kids, it is the grandparents and children who have time to crawl through the Net. In the case of grandparents, Furlong says, "they also have the education level to explore these new worlds."
Grandparents already have one point in their favor as far as their grandkids are concerned -- a common enemy in their own children (their grandkids' parents). Now online grandparents can claim another bonus: they hear from their grandchildren via e-mail far more often than they do via snail mail or phone. And thanks in part to SeniorNet, advertising moguls are taking note. Older people are beginning to figure far more prominently in ad campaigns for companies like Intel and Microsoft.
Furlong, who lives in Lafayette, Calif., is a professor of education at the University of San Francisco and spends as much time as possible with her husband and two sons. She's also written books on technology and education. Furlong -- who can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com -- says her goal is to get as many seniors as possible participating in the information age.
"Computers may be the real fountain of youth for older adults," she says. "And I think it's time for them to step in the pool and get their feet wet."
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