Retirement homes typically have neither time nor resources to help residents with e-mail, video chats or Web services. "Residents may be too confused or frail to use computers," a caregiver in a small residential home told me.
But there are some bright spots in Mountain View. At Grant Cuesta Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, assistant activity director Josephine Virrey says that "Residents like Nintendo's Wii Bowling." I asked her if they liked Wii Tennis, but she said it's too jerky for most rehab patients, while Wii Bowling is much smoother.
The facility also offers residents a single computer for Internet access in the lobby. Or residents can bring their own computer and access the Internet from their room.
At Mountain View Healthcare Center, some seniors browse the news and send e-mails in their rooms. Shorebreeze, which sets aside 72 of its 120 affordable housing units especially for seniors, provides a shared computer room.
And Villa Siena on Miramonte Avenue is undergoing a massive rebuilding which, when completed, will have a shared computer room with three computers for residents, according to administrator Yolanda Guzman.
So what about seniors who can get out and about? I checked out the Mountain View Senior Center's Tech Room — a classroom full of Dell computers running Windows XP. Here seniors can take computer classes or just drop in to use the machines.
Marilyn, who wanted to learn computing to keep up with her technology-loving son, had just taken a class there on how to use a PC. I also met Yoshida, a senior who, unlike Marilyn, has never learned to type — and the class supports complete beginners like her as well. The Senior Center also offers classes in Google's Picasa picture library software, which enables digital camera pictures to be shown on the Web.
Gordon Bell is an extraordinary senior, known for designing minicomputers at Digital Equipment, and more recently for storing his life details on a computer at Microsoft. He sports a SenseCam camera round his neck which automatically takes pictures when the environment changes. He even records his heart beat.
Go to www.mylifebits.com to read more about how Bell has captured documents, pictures, videos and more to become paper-free. He can browse through his life and view memories on his computer using software developed by fellow Microsoft researcher Jim Gemmell and others. Gemmell explains capturing digital memories in has recently released "Total Recall," a book that explores research into the capturing, archiving and retrieval of personal experiences.
Bell and Gemmell recently shared their experiences about MyLifeBits at the Computer History Museum. They claimed that storing memories on computers uncluttered their brains, freeing them to think new thoughts. Bell said everyone needs a scanner to capture documents and mementos, or at least a digital camera. Gemmell pointed out that finding the right information is a major challenge. For example, if you carry a memory stick with a complete health record, including heartbeats, what do you give an emergency room doctor if you are rushed to the hospital? There may not be time to sift through all that information.
We don't all want or need to capture every single detail of our lives. But maybe you do have a little time to customize technology for a senior citizen, such as setting up an iPod to play music, or a laptop to show pictures, or a webcam for video messaging.
I downloaded an application called TappyTunes for my iPhone. It's ridiculously simple — you tap the screen to select a tune, then you tap the screen with one finger to play the tune. This type of simple design is badly needed for seniors and their caregivers in retirement homes.