Bjorn again

Revolution is more commonly associated with the young than the old
and the IT revolution is no exception. This was a stereotype that
Melanie Lewin hoped to challenge when she visited Sweden on an
Isabel Schwarz Travel Fellowship paid for by Community Care and the
University of Kent. A consumer involvement officer with Edinburgh
social work department, Lewin has long been interested in computers
as a tool for the social inclusion of older people.

Two years ago she co-ordinated a pilot project to install computers
in two of the department’s day centres for older people. She also
undertook a masters degree at Stirling University, part of which
involved writing a dissertation on how computers can be used to
engage older people in the social and political life of their

Lewin set out to look at the work of SeniorNet which, from a small
office in Stockholm, oversees more than 40 older people’s computer
groups throughout Sweden with a total of 6,000 members. SeniorNet
was the brainchild of Tomas Ohlin, who had been involved in a
similar group in California in the early 1990s, and Martha Sanden,
journalist, entrepreneur and women’s rights campaigner. They
received a small start-up grant from the Swedish IT Commission, but
the organisation flourished mainly thanks to bank loans and
membership fees of 200 krone, roughly £15 a year.

What impressed her initially was SeniorNet’s Senior Surf Day, an
annual event in which all older people are invited to attend local
groups, or use computer terminals in communal facilities like
public libraries and post offices. The first time it was tried four
years ago 30,000 older people turned out to try their hand at
operating a computer keyboard and mouse, and the event has brought
a steady stream of new recruits to SeniorNet’s local groups ever

Lewin remembers noting that most of the older people who attended
were fairly fit and wondering what had happened to the frailer

“SeniorNet said they would love to work with people in care homes
but that they didn’t have the resources to provide transport to the
local groups,” Lewin explains. “But they did reason that they were
teaching people who may become disabled in the future to use
computers. Older people worry about what’s around the corner and
many thought it would be good to have computer skills in case they
ever became housebound.”

The value of computers to older people is already apparent in
Edinburgh. At the Sighthill day centre, the largest in the city,
about 40 clients with complex needs attend every day. It has three
computers exclusively for the use of clients. “The computers are a
bit slow,” says Nan McQueenie, acting manager of the day centre,
“but for clients at this age slow is good because it gives them
time to go through the steps.”

A regular visitor to Sighthill is Janet Dinning, aged 92, who makes
extensive use of the computing facilities. “I thought I was too old
to learn, but the whole family are into computers and I just wanted
to see what they could do. Companies often blame their computers
when things go wrong and I wanted to know how computers could make
these mistakes. I discovered it wasn’t them at all but the silly
ass operating them who was responsible.”

Dinning is writing her life story on the computer, as well as
designing cards, playing games and sending e-mails. “Most of my
family has a computer in the house,” she says.

At the Silverlea care home on the other side of the city they are
using interactive webcams to enable older people to exercise an
influence over the events that govern their lives. Recently
residents were able to hold a question and answer session over a
webcam link with councillors taking part in a meeting of West
Edinburgh Local Development Council, which is part of Edinburgh

“We really held them to account and caught them on the hop with the
questions we were asking,” says Kate McDaid, a social care worker
at the home. She has been working on the Demos project, a local IT
initiative to help older people overcome the isolation often
resulting from mobility problems so that they can participate more
actively in local democracy.

Tom, a day visitor to the home, says it is important to make an
impact in the face of social care cutbacks. “The Church of Scotland
is closing down homes, even though the demand for places is bound
to increase because hospitals are caring for people who don’t need
to be in there.”

John, a resident, agrees: “It shows the politicians that we have an
opinion. I think it’s a great thing.”

In Sweden the uses to which older people were putting computers
included e-mail, digital photography, internet banking, and paying
bills. Lewin went to visit five of the SeniorNet groups, including
the one in the Stockholm suburb of Bjornbo, where Jorgen and Doris
had set up a computer room in the basement of a private retirement
complex. The complex houses 200 people, all of whom are offered
basic computer training by six of the residents including Jorgen
and Doris.

“They sit an examination to find out if they have reached a certain
level of proficiency and are then able to buy their own key and use
the room whenever they like for a small fee,” Lewin says. “A
quarter of the people who lived in the complex used the

“Many of those who started in the computer room went on to get
their own computers. Jorgen said he was teaching five people to pay
bills via the internet, the oldest being 85. This gentleman had
only started to learn five years ago, but had become proficient in
using Photoshop [a graphics and photograph manipulation software

“At a PhD presentation I went to while I was in Sweden it was
suggested that there is the concept of a ‘good senior’ – one who
keeps himself and his mind active, joins associations and
demonstrates that he is not letting himself go. Lots of seniors
involved with SeniorNet talked about the importance of PCs for
exercising your brain.”

Lewin also called in at the Kanelbulla internet cafe, established
in a centre for older people. It acquired 350 members in the first
three-and-a-half years of its existence. “Kanelbulla” is the
Swedish for cinnamon bun, so called because the native variety
looks not unlike the “@” of an e-mail address. Thirty of the
members act as volunteer trainers between 11am and 3pm on weekdays
and, though most of the training is carried out in the cafe, they
can go to people’s own homes for a fee equivalent to £2 per

The cafe’s four computers are provided free by sponsors and the
local council pays for the phone connections. Among its other
services are a PC loan scheme and a computer flea market where
components can be picked up cheaply.

Other SeniorNet clubs have tapped into community resources such as
computers in libraries or in schools when the children have gone
home. Lewin says: “The groups model allows people to develop local
resources in whichever way they want, as informal clubs or formal
teaching centres. There are few such examples of older people
teaching peers in this country, other than, perhaps, the University
of the Third Age.”

The trip has persuaded Lewin that an organisation along SeniorNet
lines would benefit Scotland, although she would prefer to focus on
the needs of very old people rather than the younger age range who
frequent the Swedish groups. “For SeniorNet as an organisation to
be able to work with less fit older people would require many more
resources,” she says.

The burden of setting up a Scottish counterpart herself would be
too great, she thinks, but she is keen to spread the word and plans
to write about the scheme to Stuart Mather, the Scottish
executive’s “digital inclusion champion”. “Maybe someone out there
will decide to take up the challenge,” she adds.

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