A lack of suitable courses is excluding many of Hong Kong's elderly from the digital era, now some seniors are taking matters into their own hands, writes Patsy Moy
A confident smile lights up the face of 63-year-old Ma Yuet-ho as she moves the cursor across the computer screen.
The retired factory worker says proudly that she has mastered not only the simple skills of sending e-mails and browsing websites, but also more advanced computer functions including making homepages, editing digital photos and using Chinese characters.
About a year ago, the grandmother-of-two also started teaching other elderly people, on a voluntary basis, in a computer learning centre for senior citizens founded by the Cyber Senior Network Development Association.
Ms Ma says she saw computer technology as something 'completely unapproachable' before she started to study it six years ago.
'My daughter had a computer at home, but I didn't dare to even dust it because I was afraid I would damage the machine or lose the data,' she says.
'However, I always wished that I would be able to use the machine one day because computers have become so popular. I would appear to be out of fashion if I didn't learn the technology.'
There were few study options tailored for the elderly back then. Ms Ma was reluctant to enrol in an ordinary computer course because of fears about the pace of learning and the uneasy feeling of being taught and surrounded by people who were at least half her age.
'Elderly people can never think and move as swiftly as young people,' she says. 'I was worried about being the slowest learner in an ordinary class - that would be very embarrassing and create a lot of pressure on me. So, I was reluctant to learn it.
'English is another major barrier in learning computers, as most of the commands and websites are in English,' says Ms Ma, whose English standard is about primary school level.
'I was thrilled to learn from one of my neighbours that a centre for the elderly in the neighbourhood offered a computer course. I enrolled in the programme without giving it a second thought.' The grandmother proudly shares her key to success: 'I have put a lot of effort into memorising all the buttons, commands and special computer jargon that is in English,' she says. 'My key to learning computers is to work hard and repeat the steps over and over again until I make the right steps and can master the skill.'
Spending three or more hours in front of the computer screen to read newspapers, browse websites and send messages to friends has become Ms Ma's daily routine. She also continues to take computer courses once a week to advance her skills and knowledge.
Ms Ma says her computer helps her feel young at heart, because it allows her to keep pace with the development of technology and society.
A widow for two decades, Ms Ma says her social network has expanded through the computer centre and by being able to keep in contact with friends online.
'Computers have also become something to talk about with my two grandchildren, who are now nine and 10. It's a lot of fun to share what we have respectively learned from our own teachers.'
Retired textile worker Leung Kwong-tung, 76, who has been studying computers for seven years, also started teaching people of a similar age about two years ago. He says his daily routine is now so seamlessly scheduled that there is barely a minute left in the day for unplanned activities.
'Besides taking and teaching computer classes a day a week, I also spend hours online every day browsing different websites and messaging my son at work and my relatives in Beijing,' Mr Leung says.
'I don't feel lonely, even though I have lived alone since my wife passed away four years ago.'
While Hong Kong was ranked seventh in the world in 2002 on its digital access index by the UN International Telecommunication Union, only a small percentage of the elderly are using computers, says John Fung Yat-chu, director of the information technology resource centre at the Hong Kong Council of Social Service.
According to figures released by the Census and Statistics Department last month, 3.78 million Hongkongers, or about 61.3 per cent of the population, aged 10 or older have at least basic computer literacy, while 59.5 per cent have used a computer in the past 12 months.
However, just 4.8 per cent of the population aged 65 or over are computer literate, and only four per cent have used a computer in the past 12 years.
Dr Fung says although there has been a slight rise in the number of elderly computer users, from about two per cent of the population three years ago, Hong Kong needs to do more to increase computer literacy for all age groups. Without such an effort it would be difficult for the city to proclaim itself a regional information technology hub.
He says there is a genuine need for the city to promote the use of information technology among elderly people in view of the ageing population. 'Life expectancy is now 84 in women and 78 in men,' Dr Fung says. 'Since computers are now becoming prevalent in all aspects of life, including communication, online shopping and obtaining information, how can people at the age of 60 or 65 avoid using them for their next 20-odd years? The more popular computers are, the more difficult it will become for those who do not learn to use them to stay in the mainstream of our community.'
He says information technology could make life a great deal easier for elderly people, particularly those who have difficulty leaving their homes.
'So, it would benefit society if we can help elderly people and other disadvantaged groups, including disabled people, to overcome the digital divide. This would prevent them becoming even more marginalised,' he says.
Dr Fung also says that aside from the growing practical need for computer literacy, learning to use new technology could help elderly people boost their self-confidence and enlarge their social circles.
'We are always talking about lonely hearts in a big city like Hong Kong,' he says. 'The feeling of loneliness can be quite acute among elderly people whose young family members are too busy with their own lives. But elderly people can chat with friends - and their relatives overseas - online, just like those people are right next to them.'
Dr Fung identifies three barriers to the adoption of computer technology by Hong Kong's elderly. They are: access to machines; an inability to use them due to lack of skill and knowledge; and the language barrier.
Although computers are provided in most elderly centres, less than 20 per cent of people aged 60 or more visit the centres. As English remains the major language of computer use, it is a further obstacle to participation by senior citizens in new technology.
'Many elderly people are scared of computers and feel very reluctant to access computer in the first place, not to mention follow through with any plans to learn to how use them,' Dr Fung says.