ODENTON In the middle of a dark, cramped room, Raymond H. Ringgold sat tall and straight amid his fellow senior citizens. Pausing for a moment over his notes, he turned down his hearing aid to block the sound of country music coming from the line dance class next door.
Looking at the computer screen on display at the front of the room, Ringgold asked, “Can we go to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit site?” His classmates laughed.
Ringgold’s classroom in the back of Catherine L. O’Malley Senior Center has 11 functioning computers, all donated, but only one has the Internet. However, O’Malley fairs better than most senior centers in the state, which have few computers and no Internet access.
Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, said he wants to bring the centers into the 21st century he’s proposed a bill to provide each senior center with three computers with Internet access.
“We have attempted to give computers to every group but the seniors. We pay for it at the colleges and universities. We pay for it in the elementary and high schools. We’re paying for it for every group but them,” said Dyson.
Only a handful of centers around the state have Internet access at all, Dyson said. Robert A. Pascal Senior Center in Glen Burnie and Rockville Senior Center are two that have Internet access because of partnerships they formed with businesses. Volunteers teach the classes.
At O’Malley, John Sullivan, a retired police officer, co-teaches the Friday afternoon Internet class for beginners. Computers are Sullivan’s hobby. He first became interested in the Internet in 1990.
“The Internet wasn’t anything like what it is now,” Sullivan said. “I like to go to places where you can learn things, like museums. But, there’s a lot of garbage (on the Internet), pornography and such. I stay away from that.”
For the record, Ringgold’s class skipped the swimsuits, and went right to home improvements.
Sullivan’s students attend class for a variety of reasons. Some are interested in map making, some in finding old friends, and many are interested in genealogy.
“That’s why I’m really in the class,” Ringgold, a senior from Severn, said. “I’ve been working on my family for over 30 years. It’s not something you ever finish.”
Nita Austin of Bowie took the class out of curiosity. Her son has been encouraging her to get on line but she was hesitant to spend money for what she calls a toy. Now she spends hours exploring the Internet.
“I’m not looking for anything in particular. I’m just exploring,” Austin said. “Next thing I know, my back is aching and I’m hungry and two hours have gone by.”
Dyson said many elderly citizens may turn to the Internet for companionship. As suicide rates among elderly rise, something must be done to stem the loneliness they are experiencing, he said. The Internet can provide a sense of community for elderly men and women who may not have friends or family close by, he said.
The bill has encountered resistance, however, because of its $1.1 million price tag.
Sen. Robert J. Hooper, R-Harford, who sits on the Finance Committee, where the bill is being discussed, doesn’t want more important bills to be sacrificed in order to finance this one.
“I’ve got to tell you, if I have to decide between computers or creating more or better facilities for senior health care, I’m going to have to go with the health care,” said Hooper. “This a want, not a need and I’m a need person. It gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, but I know it’s not a necessity.”
Dyson and others believe they won’t need state money to fund the proposal. The department may be able to find alternatives, like the donations that provided computers to the O’Malley center.
An amendment to the original bill requires the Department of Aging to provide a thorough survey of the computer accessibility at senior centers around the state. The department then will make sure each center is equipped with at least three computers, said Michael LeChance, legislative liaison for the Maryland Department of Aging.
The department will find alternative ways of acquiring the computers and teachers, probably through partnerships with businesses and volunteers, LaChance said.
“To tell you the truth, we’re going to go ahead with this whether or not the legislature passes the bill,” LaChance said. “We may not get to it as quickly as the bill’s sponsor wanted us to, but we’ll do it.”
Ringgold certainly hopes they get to it while he’s still around.
“You just can’t learn by watching,” Ringgold said. “You really need to sit in front of a computer and just do it.”