You may be surprised at what oldies do

Older people are swapping knitting needles for mice and model railways for virtual reality airplanes. Sarah Brealey reports on the grandparents who are anything but technophobes.

They might be thought of as people who cannot tell one end of a mouse from another or understand what the internet is, but the older generation is proving the stereotypes wrong.

“Silver surfers” have taken to the web with a passion, and those that use the internet now spend longer on it than any other age group. Only a cocky teenager would say that this is because old people take longer to do the same things. In fact, older people are sending emails, storing their pictures, researching their family history, shopping and looking for love online.

The UK Communications Market 2007 report from the communications regulator Ofcom says that silver surfers are changing the landscape of the internet. Over-65s who use the internet spend an average of 42 hours a month online, more than any other age group.

The report coincides with a survey showing that older people are more sexually active than you might think (or more than the researchers from University of Chicago thought, anyway). They found that 53pc of Americans aged 65 to 74, and 26pc of those aged 75 to 85, still have an active sex life.

The National Institute on Ageing, which funded the study, said this “suggests a previously uncharacter-ised vitality and interest in sexuality”.

As for the internet, the biggest users are now what Ofcom terms “digital mums”, women between 18 and 34, who collectively spend more hours online than any other age group (because although silver surfers use the internet for longer, there are fewer of them). It is a shift away from the internet as the traditional preserve of younger men - although older men are much more likely then women to spend time online.

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Part of the trend towards older internet users is because as computers become more common in working life, people are more likely to pick up computer skills before they retire. But many others are learning for the first time in retirement.

Retired aircraft technician Frank Shaw set up the Woody Project, whose slogan is “old computers for old codgers”. It supplies free computers, usually old models which have been donated by people buying newer versions, along with tuition and support.

He said: “We have found there are a lot of people out there who think they might like to have a go. They need someone of their own age group to train and teach them. Grandchildren are not very good at teaching their grandparents to use computers, because they assume too much prior knowledge. Some people don't even know how to use a mouse.”

The grandfather from Dereham only learned how to use computers six years ago. He said: “I felt I had got left behind and I decided I had to go for it. I decided I would buy myself a computer and learn how to use it.”

He now spends around seven hours a day on the internet. The 62-year-old loves Microsoft Flight Simulator, a game which gives players a virtual experience of flying an aircraft, and he spends hours downloading simulations of different aircraft and even airports which other users have created. This morning it was Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong as it was in 1963.

He also uses email a lot and shops online, especially on internet auction site Ebay and Amazon for computer components.

Computer tutor Ro Williams lives in Blythburgh, near Southwold. Her company, Suffolk Tutors Group, teaches computer classes across Suffolk, mostly to older people.

She said: “They have a fantastic interest. It is amazing actually what comes out during these classes and what they want to do.

“It starts with them wanting to get in touch with their children in Australia and it ends up with them wanting to use podcasts, MP3s, listening to internet radio, send greetings cards and so on.

“My classes are held in the daytime and most people who come to them are retired. The average age is mid to late 60s and my oldest customer is 93.”

But she said that older people were not turning to the internet simply because they have time on their hands.

“I think it is because they are so interested. It is new technology, it keeps their brains active and it keeps them interested. They can use the internet to further a hobby, like tracing family trees. It is not that they have time on their hands, they are using it to pursue their interests.”

Sixteen per cent of over-65s use the internet, while the over-50s account for a quarter of all UK internet users and 30pc of time spent online in Britain. The average internet use across all age groups is 36 minutes a day, and Ebay is the most popular website by far.

The net saw a 158pc surge in average daily usage between 2002 and 2006, while television and radio are dropping in popularity, but still account for much more time than the internet.

The popularity of downloads for games like Flight Simulator, which is mostly played by men of mature years, is already a sign that the internet is not all about younger people's interests.

Social networking sites like Bebo and Facebook may get all the hype, put the beauty of the internet is that there is room for everyone.

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