Ann Hamel, 80, was cautiously tapping away at a Packard Bell PC at the Bykota Senior Center in Towson, somewhat baffled by the icons, the mouse and the multiple menus, but determined to learn computers nonetheless.
"My family talks about computers all the time, and I don't know what they're saying," she said, "but I'm going to find out."
Mrs. Hamel, a retired teacher, is one of thousands of senior citizens who are whizzing into the computer age, pushed by their children and grandchildren, and a computer industry becoming eager to tap a huge and so far lightly touched market.
Companies as diverse as software giant Microsoft and Bell Atlantic are seeing opportunities in providing computer products and services for the elderly.
There are 33 million Americans 65 or older, according to a 1993 U.S. census report, and they have more disposable income and more time for computers than any other age group. But only about 10 percent of households headed by someone 60 to 69 years old have a computer.
"The conventional wisdom has been that the elderly are technophobes," said Tom Otwell, of the American Association of Retired Persons, "but we're finding out that isn't true."
AARP executive director Horace Deets goes on-line several times a month to answer questions about such matters as long-term care, health issues, and legislation that affects the elderly.
"Computers are a marvelous way for the elderly to stay in touch with the world," Mr. Otwell said.
SeniorNet, a nonprofit organization with headquarters in San Francisco, helps the elderly do just that.
Founded in 1986, SeniorNet has more than 20,000 members in 75 chapters around the country, among them a 101-year-old man in Akron, Ohio, who was having trouble with his course until he realized his hearing-aid batteries were running down.
Significantly, SeniorNet's sponsor list includes many of the major computer hardware and software companies and several telephone companies -- including Bell Atlantic -- which have their eye on the extra phone lines seniors might add for their computers. Bell Atlantic has helped to pay for equipment and training in five SeniorNet centers.
SeniorNet was formed, said founder and president Mary Furlong, to help seniors "have fun and share knowledge with others."
"The industry was involved in selling the business and school market, and it's now getting into the home market in a big way," Ms. Furlong said. "Senior citizens are a big part of that market."
When SeniorNet (800-747-6848) was created, Ms. Furlong asked CompuServe and The Source to go on line with it, but they turned her down. "They said the elderly weren't interested in computers," she said, adding that they and others now are "happy to be with us."
Doris Henderson, 66, a retired IBM employee, is coordinator of a chapter in Camp Springs, which is the closest one to Baltimore. She said she has members in their mid-80s who now understand that e-mail, modem and megabyte are not words from a language of the young.
"Many didn't want to become involved with computers," Ms. Henderson said, "but they want to keep up with their grandchildren. It gives them a common interest. It also keeps their minds active, and people on the 'Net become almost like family.
"They've even reversed the hand-me-down role," Ms. Henderson said. "Their children are giving them their old computers, and they're helping their parents shop for hardware and software."
The Rev. Arlester Brown, 71, a retired United Methodist minister, is a regular at a SeniorNet center sponsored by the Jewish Service for the Aging in Washington.
"I was interested in computers, but never knew much about them," he said. "I did my sermons on a word processor, but that's not the same." Mr. Brown is researching his family tree with the help of a book and software, "Family Tree Maker," marketed by Banner Blue Corp., in Fremont, Calif.
"I'm back to my grandparents, John and Rosie Brown, in Louisiana, more than 100 years ago," he said.
Senior citizens are putting their money where their mouse is: The Bykota Senior Center council recently spent $17,000 from its treasury to pay for six Packard Bell PCs, a laser jet printer and supplies, becoming the first county senior center to have its own computer lab.
The expenditure came in response to a survey of the 2,000 Bykota members, who thought it was a good idea, according to the center's acting director, Irma Kadish.
"County senior centers have had classes available for several years," Ms. Kadish said, "but members had to go to a high school to take them."
About 140 members have taken the course since its inception July 31. "I love it, and it's one of the best things they've ever done here," said Bykota member Lee Lindsey, 77. "I figure if a 3-year-old can do it, a 77-year-old can do it."
Microsoft recently released a study it commissioned to find out how software technology could be made more usable for senior citizens. Of the 2,800 retirees surveyed, 42 percent said they thought it is necessary to have computer skills in today's world, 35 percent said it wasn't, and 23 percent weren't sure.
Retirement homes also are catching on to the potential of computers for their residents.
Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville put its residents on line this year with a computer room, an e-mail connection, and a link to the Internet. Charlestown's parent company will add Oak Crest, its new retirement home in Perry Hall, to the system in March.
Bykota's computer lab was set up by Maynard Brien, 61, a Social Security Administration retiree who is the class instructor.
"Seniors learn well, but you have to be basic because many of them are starting from scratch," he said. "It just takes patience on their part and mine. I tell them to master the mouse, but they're a little afraid of it at first."