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Silver surfing from New Zealand to North Carolina
It’s only 9:45am, but already the most enthusiastic members of the Girton Computer Group are arriving for the 10am start.
Space is at a premium in the cosy Cambridgeshire village community centre, where members bring along their laptops and tablets to access ultrafast broadband (and yes, full disclosure, it’s supplied by Virgin Media Business).
Aged between 53 and 94, the group’s participants are eager “silver surfers” who wish to get to grips with the internet and all the benefits of the digital age.
A lifetime for communicating
In fact, June Wilmers, 91, is booting up her iPad and wouldn’t be anywhere else on a cold, damp Monday morning in January.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about computers and catch up with your friends,” she says. “I use the internet for searching for information and emailing the foreign students I assist with English on a voluntary basis. Many have left England and now live all over the world. If I didn’t know how to email we wouldn’t be able to keep in touch.”
At 94 Joan Bland is the oldest person present – and proud of it too. Her laptop has become a lifeline when it comes to communicating with family abroad.
Joan says: “I use email, of course, but it’s Skype that comes in most useful. My granddaughter married an Australian sheep farmer and lives somewhere near Perth. My son lives in North Carolina. Skype is a great way for me to contact them. They can show you around the house and chat as if they were next to you. I also like to find crosswords on the internet.”
Broadband as robust as it's users
By 10am the room is full with around 20 people tapping away on their machines. Overseeing the proceedings is Sam Clift, a former policeman and parish councillor who founded the group in 2008.
Sam says: “South Cambridge District Council put an internet access point into the community centre, but it wasn’t getting used. I thought that should change and invited some people along. Things have snowballed from there. At first there was no WiFi until the County Council installed Virgin Media Business wireless broadband. It holds up well with around twenty users at a time – and this lot put it through its paces.”
Sam is ably assisted by fellow Computer Group “champions” Graham Clare, Graham Jones, Ann Jerram, Ann Crowson and Andrew Zolnai. They are on hand to assist with tech problems, large and small.
Sam says: “We don’t run a class because each member usually wants to work on something specific to them. They come with their questions and problems and we help as best as we can. There’s a big social element as well. The WiFi provides a good excuse to get everyone in one room for a bit of a chat.”
The "no computer" generation
Right on cue a tray of steaming mulled wine appears and few need any convincing to enjoy a glass of the traditional tipple left over from a Christmas party.
Ken Moston, 91, is the only man in today’s group – although usually there are two or three others. He recently replaced his desktop computer with a laptop, which he uses to Skype his son in New Zealand.
Ken says: “Anthony moved to Christchurch 22 years ago and although I have visited seven times, it is much easier to stay in contact over the internet. I’m one of the generation that didn’t use computers at school or at work, but both my sons are in their fifties now and I owned a PC before either of them. I have friends who are frightened of the internet, which is a shame. I want to keep abreast of technology and make use of the opportunities.”
Safe and sound on a secure network
One of the champions is helping spritely Claire Channell download Google Earth to her laptop. At 84 Claire is one of the younger members – but insists that doesn’t mean she finds technology any easier than the others.
With a wink Claire says: “I would smash every computer in the world if I had my way. I was a nurse and we didn’t need technology to do the job back then. I’m scared of them and all this hacking business. People stealing your information. Thieves have come a long way since my day.
A champion explains that Virgin Media Business’s network is secured to prevent such things occurring, and Claire seems relieved.
“Computers are one of life’s necessities,” she says. “I like to email my friend Sarah Sharpton in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We met several years ago on holiday in New Zealand and have stayed in contact ever since.”
Keeping in touch with the outside world
Patricia Johnston is the Age UK Older Residents’ Coordinator for Girton, which has a substantial percentage of OAPs within its boundaries, and has popped in to see how everyone is getting on. She knows from experience just how important it is for the older generation to develop their computer skills.
Patricia says: “Email and Skype are amazing. They keep the elderly in touch with the outside world. This group is especially good because it encourages them to use computers, but it is also very social. Getting out and mixing is good for everyone – no matter what age you are.”
Gardening enthusiast, Christine Gray, is listening in while she checks for some tips online.
“They don’t care about gardens down here,” she says. “I’m from the Midlands, where we care about gardens. Here in Cambridge you die of shock if you ever see a flower.”
Sam signals it’s time to go and Christine and the rest begin to shut down their computers. Would she be willing to share how old she is, like the others?
“I’d rather not,” says Christine buttoning her vivid red jacket. “That’s my secret.”
Which just shows that even as technology changes our world at a relentless and sometimes alarming rate, you should never ask a person of more mature years their age.