It’s the living room to most other residents of La Jolla’s Casa de Mañana Retirement Community, but John Ellison calls it his man cave. Cluttered with Amazon boxes and electronic components, it’s dominated by a desk sporting four laptop computers. Here, the 85-year-old former electronics engineer Skypes with family and friends, reads online aeronautical journals and monitors global economic trends.
“This technology is a window on the world,” said Ellison, who teaches two weekly classes at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s San Diego campus that he says he could easily teach online in case his health fails.
“You can be an invalid here, or in a walker or a wheelchair, and the world is still available to you,” he explained. “These tools enrich your life in ways that most people in a retirement center would be isolated from until this technology came along.”
Most seniors aren’t former electronics engineers like Ellison, but neither are they as digitally disconnected as you may think. About 67 percent of Americans aged 65 or older use the Internet, the Pew Research Center reported in May. And the percentage rockets to 94 for seniors from households earning $75,000 or more annually. (Smart-phone ownership among the richest seniors is 80 percent.)
Casa de Mañana is an oceanfront luxury community where monthly rent ranges from $3,555 for a studio to $10,425 for the swankiest two-bedroom villa.
At 87, getting around has become difficult for resident Iris Allyn Klipp, so much so that she says she’s made her final trip back home to her beloved New York “because it’s just too much.” Yet the former Del Mar Times reporter regularly FaceTimes her son in Connecticut on her iPhone 7, checks in with her daughter’s Instagram account using her Mac laptop and reads the New Yorker on her iPad Air.
“I do a lot of stuff,” Klipp says. “I’ve written a children’s book and I’m writing a book for young adults now, too.”
The Internet revolution is already 25 years old, so today’s seniors were as young as 40 then and much more likely to adopt than seniors of just a decade ago.
“More and more people are moving in here who are used to using a computer,” said Casa de Mañana resident Barbara Stabenau, 82. “When I first came eight years ago, hardly anybody was interested. In fact, they had a computer lab here that they gave up on because nobody was using it.”
Stabenau, a widowed former hospital administrator, owns a smart phone and a Mac with a 21-inch screen that she uses for e-mailing friends, catching up on news and laying out the residence newsletter. She also recently purchased an Amazon Echo, which she uses primarily to play her music library, but she says that relationship is off to a rocky start.
“Alexa just ignores me sometimes,” Stabenau says, referring to the device’s voice controller.
Retired LA County administrator Ken Suarez, 73, taught himself ukulele via the YouTube clips of a Seattle-based pastoral musician named “Ukulele Mike” Lynch.
“I retired and I was bored, and our son introduced me to YouTube,” Suarez said. “I stared with TED Talks and then I wanted to learn an instrument.” Suarez planned on guitar, but the senior center in his old neighborhood only had a hobbyist group for ukuleles.
“So I bought a cheap ukulele,” he said. “I liked the guys. But I couldn’t keep up with them, so I went home and found Ukulele Mike. He sits you down and very slowly teaches you.” Now, Suarez teaches his own ukulele class to fellow Casa de Mañana residents in the chapel every Friday.
“It’s more for fun than a serious thing,” he said.
Casa de Mañana is also home to a weekly class that about 20 residents regard as their own Genius Bar. Every Friday afternoon, 10 or so at a time come to computer consultant Ross Milloy in a second-floor conference room with their malfunctioning laptops and questions about computer viruses. In today’s meeting, one resident asks the same question about his web browser’s home page automatically redirecting that, according to another resident, he already received the answer to two weeks ago.
“They have issues with vision and with forgetting things, but they’re basically the same as everyone else,” said Milloy, 65, who teaches the hour-long class on a voluntary basis. “The big issue I see with the seniors is that change is very difficult. So when they come up with a new version of Windows, to adapt to that isn’t as easy as when they were younger.”
Even a senior with the latest devices won’t necessarily use them for common programs. Stabenau says she’s never Skyped or FaceTimed and is finished with Facebook. She only signed up for it to view photos of her two great-grandchildren, not to have remote acquaintances and people she never liked reach out from her past.
“It was just more than I wanted to deal with,” Stabenau said. “Now I just ignore the requests. I don’t say anything. I guess I’m rude about it.”
Jack Nunn, an 80-year-old retired furniture salesman from Pittsburgh who enjoys using his computer to illustrate, says he found the three or four times he used FaceTime a colossal disappointment.
“We’d have a conversation with our grandchildren and they’d lose interest real quick in staring at the screen,” he said.
As expected, the older seniors are, the less technological engagement is likely. Muriel Thompson isn’t on the Internet at all. At 94, she doesn’t feel a need to be, so a perfectly good Dell desktop collects dust in her Casa de Mañana apartment.
“I had a couple of friends I communicated with, but I’m the only one left,” said the Sterling, Colorado native, explaining that she never married or had children. (“I never had time,” she said. “I was always too busy doing other things.”)
Yet even Thompson is not out of high-tech’s reach. She finds solace in a robotic cat gifted to her by a niece for her birthday in April. His name is Pud (short for Pudding) and he randomly meows, purrs or turns on his back when stroked.
“Having something like this helps a little bit,” Thompson explained. “He just sits on my couch with me. Every now and then, when I don’t have anything else to do, I’ll pet him and he’ll tell me that he’s still there.”