By Fred W. Wright Jr.
Once the solitaire game pops up on the computer monitor, Mary McConnell, 92, reaches up with her right index finger, touches a card and drags the 4 of clubs to the 5 of hearts. The game is on.
McConnell, who lives at the Freedom Inn at Bay Pines assisted living facility in St. Petersburg, is expanding her computer skills and learning to email her children, who are scattered around the country.
McConnell sits at one of two computers in the facility's Internet cafe, sharing space with three aquariums and a flat-screen TV. It is here that about a third of the facility's 65 residents come to learn computer skills, create connections to their friends and families outside Freedom Inn's walls and enrich their daily lives.
The computers and training are provided by ConnectedLiving, based in Quincy, Mass. The company has contracts with similar facilities in 26 states, including 17 in Florida. In six years, the company has become the largest provider of training designed to "connect the older generation into the digital world," according to CEO Sarah Hoit.
When seniors move into an assisted living community, they not only want to remain in contact with family and friends, but "they want to know the others in their new community. What are their interests? Do they like to go to museums? Out to eat?
"In the past, seniors were the largest disconnected population," Hoit said.
Members of senior living communities often are limited in their interactions with others. While most facilities provide enrichment activities, the Internet offers potentials unlimited by time, space or age.
Some seniors come to an assisted living facility with well-honed email and social media skills, often even with their own laptop or iPad. Others don't.
For Harry Crouse, 82, a former resident of St. Pete Beach who decorates his wheelchair with American flags, computers had been part of his business world. What he wanted — and says he finally got through ConnectedLiving — was more information about the planned day-to-day and week-to-week activities at Freedom Inn.
Now he has it. Part of the package ConnectedLiving offers is abundant information about all members of the community, staff and residents alike, as well as menus, scheduled events, off-site activities, even a complaint process for questions and concerns.
And Crouse's social outreach has increased. "I'm on Facebook with three or four friends so far," he said.
The in-house package includes a touch-screen menu that will link residents to friends, family, email, games, personal journals and photos and, of course, the Internet. It's free and, with a password, residents can go wherever they want in the digital universe. The access is as private as a resident may want. Signing up for such social media sites as Facebook or Twitter is strictly optional.
Besides solitaire, the most popular activity seems to be learning how to use Skype, a computer-to-computer video software program that can mean a live conversation with friends and family. And since ConnectedLiving provides tech support via Skype 12 hours a day, often that conversation is with Darren or Anna, who become digital friends as well as tech supporters.
For 71-year-old Art Wyeth, who has been at Freedom Inn just about a year, the Internet connection means he can look up the airplanes he used to fly as a charter pilot. Right now, he's surfing for images of a Grumman Widgeon. The twin-engine, five-passenger aircraft was one of his favorites.
Wyeth hasn't been a pilot since a near-fatal industrial accident decades ago. But with the Internet, he can still dream, he says.
Fred W. Wright Jr. is a freelance writer based in Seminole. He can be reached at email@example.com.